Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales—Nationals Whip in the Senate) (18:58): I rise to talk about Bankwest. Recently we had a Senate inquiry. The public would be well aware that Bankwest was sold, in 2008, to the Commonwealth Bank for $2.1 billion. It appears to me that this sale prompted a scrutiny of Bankwest's loan book and I believe the instructions came from above to clean it up. For the past year or so, numerous complaints came to my office from businesspeople who were clients of Bankwest. After listening to many stories I, along with my colleagues Senator Bushby and Senator Cormann, pushed for a Senate inquiry into the wider banking industry. That inquiry was called 'The post-GFC banking sector'.
I want to quote what Mr Rob de Luca, Managing Director of Bankwest, said in his opening statement to that inquiry in relation to customers affected by the global financial crisis:
It is in our interests to support viable, sustainable businesses during periods of genuine hardship.
I want you to remember that quote, and I am sure you will, Senator Macdonald, my colleague listening here. But let me take you to the case of a hotelier in Queensland, Mr Ken Brundell. Mr Brundell owns the Rams Head Hotel in Millmerran in south-west Queensland. One day, along comes a hotel broker and finance broker, who tells him that he should buy the Cobb and Co. Hotel in St George—St George, where Senator Barnaby Joyce has his office
Mr Brundell was quite happy owning just the one hotel, but Bankwest chased him aggressively and made it sound as if Christmas had come early. It was a three-year loan offered to Mr Brundell. Mr Brundell asked Bankwest if they would roll the loan over again after three years, and they said: 'Certainly, of course we would. We are a good bank. We will do whatever we can for you.' So he went ahead and borrowed the money. Interest rates went up to around nine per cent during the term of that three-year period. At the end of the three years Bankwest said things had changed and they wanted their money back—they pulled the plug on the business. Mr Brundell was paying interest only and had never missed a payment. The hotels were trading well, but like all country pubs they were subject to the droughts and floods. Bankwest is now charging an interest rate of around 18 per cent and Mr Brundell continues to make payments at the old rate, but I am informed that Bankwest will not accept his money. All Mr Brundell wants to do is to sit down with Bankwest and work through the issue and get them to honour the deal about rolling over the three-year loan so he can pay his interest and sell one of the hotels.
While we are still in Queensland, this is a case of another business which has never defaulted but finds itself in Bankwest's bad books. I underline 'has never defaulted'—it has never missed an interest payment. That loan was due to expire in January this year, so the businesspeople met with Bankwest in December last year and were told that the bank no longer wanted their business. They were told the bank would contact them again in mid-February to arrange a new valuation, which would cost them $8,000, but nothing has happened. This business has never defaulted in interest and principal and it has provided all financials and information to Bankwest in a timely manner. Three years ago it was told it had to switch from the fixed interest loan to a variable interest, and the switching fee—listen to this, Mr Deputy President—was $246,000. This was never put in writing but was witnessed by four people in the room at the time: 'You will get out of your fixed-loan interest, you'll go into variable and, by the way, we'll just grab $246,000 on the way.' It did not matter that in the last few months this Queensland business suffered $100,000 worth of damage from the floods and lost $30,000 in revenue because it was closed for six days. Bankwest is still going nowhere with this business.
What about some sympathy? I know that Steven Munchenberg from the Australian Bankers' Association sent me an email media release: 'Banks will be compassionate and considerate to those affected by floods.' I know he would mean it, because he is a good bloke. I know that Westpac has certainly put out a media release, and have informed me, saying, 'People under financial stress because of the floods, we will talk to you and give you some reprieve and we will help you through this.' In an email to my office today, the owners say, 'All we ask is to be left alone until we get a sale.' They just want to sell the resort and get on with their lives. That is the pressure they have been put under, and they are a good young family and good hard workers.
Mr Deputy President, I take you to another case: the case of a publican on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, whose name is Stephen Weller. Mr Weller has owned the Nambucca Hotel at Macksville for seven years and has been financed by Bankwest. He has paid $200,000 off the principal of his debt in the last two years and has never missed an interest payment. In September last year he was advised the hotel's value had fallen and a deed of forbearance was issued to make their loan due on 10 January this year. Mr Weller sold a block of poker machines and the family home but did not get the proceeds in time to settle on the 28 February just gone, and a solicitor's letter was received a few days later to say he was in default. He had sold the poker machines, and he is selling the house. Bankwest extended the facility to 19 March and Mr Weller will have to cough up the proceeds from the sale of the house. Stephen Weller works four shifts and starts at 3:30 am every day, and if the hotel is sold he will have nowhere to live. He is paying his way. Remember those words from Mr De Luca. I will repeat them: 'It is in our interests to support viable, sustainable businesses during periods of genuine hardship.' Is that a statement which is misleading that Senate inquiry, I wonder, Mr Deputy President? Here is Mr Weller and his Nambucca Hotel at Macksville: he has never missed an interest payment, he has paid $200,000 off his principal and he is now paying more by selling his house and his poker machines, but he is under the pump. Even my office has trouble getting Bankwest to the table, and they generally need a few prods to get them going. In fact, my staff have given up on trying to get answers out of them.
I have a good relationship with most of the banks and can only speak highly of the people in the other banks, such as Justin Owen and Dallas McInerney, who I worked with in the National Australia Bank—good people and good to deal with. There is Ryan Bloxom from Westpac. I was speaking to Ryan today—a good communicator. If we have a problem we go and talk to these people. There are Michael Johnston and Keith Weybury from the ANZ—the same thing: good communication, 'Let's work through the problems'—and John McLenaghan from the Commonwealth Bank. I hold these people in high regard because, when I have a complaint about some problem with the bank or people think they are being done badly by a bank, we can sit down, communicate and talk, but not with Bankwest. Bankwest could learn a lot from the way those banks deal with clients who need a hand. As I said, the big four are good to deal with and mostly we work through the problems. We do not always have a win, but at least they will always talk to us.
I would have thought that Bankwest would have received a wake-up call from the banking inquiry, because many of the complaints were about Bankwest, but obviously they are slow learners. They need to lift their game. On this day when we are celebrating 50 years of the wonderful work of Lifeline, I know what financial pressure can do to a person. I do not want to see more people ringing Lifeline under mental stress because of financial worries. We know businesses do it tough, and we know some go broke, but the message I give to Bankwest is: you deal with money, we in this place deal with people, and it is time you showed some more respect for those businesses that are paying their way. They are not responsible for the price of their asset going down. We had a global financial crisis. What caused the global financial crisis? It was two things: one was severe government debt around the world, including in Europe, Japan and the United States, and the other was a thing called subprime lending. And who carried out the sub-prime lending? Lehman Brothers and the banks. That is what brought on the global financial crisis, and now it seems that it is everyone else's fault. I am really annoyed that Aussies like Mr Ken Brundell have a go and the heavy salesman says, 'We'll finance you.' They financed Ken Brundell all the way: 100 per cent for the hotel in St George and they even included the legal fees. Bankwest were very confident—'We'll lend you the money'—and here is a bloke in his 70s, working way past dark, and they upped his interest rate to 18 per cent. To me, that is very un-Australian. It is as if, when someone is down, you put the boot in.
As I said, I have a good rapport with all the banks, but I cannot say much in kindness to Bankwest for the way they are treating some of these people. I just hope they lift their game, show some respect and, when their customers are paying their interest and paying their way, stick with them. As one senior bank officer said to me, 'Why would you sell someone up when they are meeting their interest payments?' That is a very good question, but only Bankwest can answer that. Sure, their LVRs have increased because of their assets going down, but that is not their fault.