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Cashless Society Closes in on Australia

ByRobert Silverman

The Author

Robert Silverman is the pen name of a journalist and academic with extensive Australian and international experience in teaching, researching and writing on politics and history.

Not all fish are the same. Just like us. They move in shoals, family groups or circulate the oceans independently. Seine nets bring them to the surface in their trillions as food for the human masses. They can be caught off a beach, rocks, from a boat or the end of a pier but some of the most desirable are hard to catch because of their line-snapping size or their intelligence. 

Take the brown trout as an example. In the trout family the brown is the hardest to catch. Wary, canny, knowing those shadows on the water are out to get him (or her). Whether prey or predator deception is essential to survival. The trout predator can’t just throw a line in the water. The trout has to be stalked and fooled by the fly or the lure as it flashes through the water or turns like an aquatic insect. Seeing food, the trout bites and is caught. Deception has triumphed over the survival instinct.

Put yourself in the same situation. The eight billion human animals on the planet live in urban clusters or in isolation. They consume and they are consumed, as they always have been, by the far smaller number of humans among who are infinitely more powerful– in our time, politicians, corporations and the media.  They all want something from you, your vote your consumer product, your money and your opinion. At critical points they will also want your life.

They are the predator and you the prey. To catch and reel you in they begin with deception. The promises politicians never keep. Corporations offering a glittering array of services that suit them more than you, which brings us to banking, the cashless economy and in time the fully digitalised society as part of ‘sustainable development’, the ‘Great Reset’ and the ‘fourth industrial revolution.’

We are still in the early stages of these epochal changes. We are aware of the shadows forming around us without quite knowing what they will eventually represent. We have entered a labriynth without knowing what awaits us when we finally reach the exit.

Yes, a fully digitalised society but what will this mean in detail? Who will be the prime beneficiaries? We the people or governments and corporations– or is the question too naïve even to ask?

The smart phone and the bankcard are the first lures into the world being refashioned around us. They make life so much easier.  No need for cash money as long as you have your phone and card. No need even for the card as the phone can tap on for you, tapping into what you won’t know in the long term until you’re there and it will be too late to retreat. Liberation, or a dystopian combination of Hobbes’ Leviathan, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and Orwell’s 1984?

The cashless society is the first step inside the labriynth leading to the fully digitalised world. Already more than 98 per cent of commercial transactions in Australia are being paid by card. Banks are already making tremendous profits. 2023 half year results for the major banks (basically the big four, Westpac, CBA, NAB and ANZ) more than $17 billion, with the Commonwealth Bank alone raking in $10.16 billion. Record profits are expected for the full year, an estimated $33.5 billion for 2023/24. 

The banks are herding us towards a cashless society for reasons of their own, beginning with profit.

Imagine how much they are going to save/make if they are not dealing with physical masses of money every day.  With everyone using cards, and not even a card is needed now, they don’t need to have a branch, tellers, vaults, staff, ATMs and all the other infrastructure that comes with being a bank. 

We are seemingly already too deep into this first stage to retreat. Payment by digital wallet, smart phone or watch increased from $746 million in 2018 to $93 billion in 2022. Cash accounted for only 13 per cent of consumer payments by the end of 2022, compared to 70 per cent in 2007. 

Bank branches and ATMs are disappearing across Australia. In the past year alone, 424 branches were closed: from June 2017 to June 2022, 1600 branches were shut down, a disproportionate number (37 per cent) in rural Australia where the bank and the pub were the two institutions on which the locals could rely. They were critical links in the life of the town, along with the independently owned local newspaper, now almost entirely also a thing of the past. 

As for ATMs, withdrawals are down from 75 million in December 2008 to 31 million in June 2023. As a result,8000 have been closed since 2016, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), 718 in the past year alone. Most are owned by banks or credit unions, others ‘independently’ operated by Armaguard and other groups and charging several dollars for each transaction. 

Anna Bligh, the CEO of the Australian Banking Association, says 98.9 per cent of all bank transactions are now digital, but the banks are still maintaining 85 fee-free ATMs in remote and First Nation communities. 

Cash is being phased out, with a full-blown cashless society expected by 2026, 2031 at the latest. The Macquarie Bank says it won’t be dealing in cash from next year and other banks (CBA, NAB and ANZ) already have branches that don’t deal in cash. Young people have taken to the cashless regime with alacrity: the elderly find the technology difficult, often don’t have smart phones and prefer cash to cards except for the ATM. They also like the human interaction when shopping or going into a bank and they have justified fears of scammers- but of course, the elderly won’t be around forever.  

There is always bait when governments and corporations want to impose change. The industrial revolution ‘liberated’ people into 16-hour working days six days a week, children down mines or working ten hours a day in textile and urban slums without sewage or proper water supplies. In the past four decades, privatisation has transferred vast amounts of public money into private pockets. The cost has been the brutalisation of what were once efficiently run public services.  Serving the public was the point; now serving profit is the point. 

Now that we are moving ever deeper into the digital age, have the human equivalents of the brown trout stopped to think where all this is leading? If they haven’t or don’t know, that’s not surprising because no one does and that includes governments caught short by the digital revolution. The cashless economy and digitalisation is upon us without the proper safeguards being taken to protect privacy and ensure the safety of transactions against scammers. Cash or no cash, they will still work out how to do it, using the same AI and other tools that are available to the banks.

Our own federal government has been left behind by the speed of digitalisation. The profits offered by digitalisation are great for those quickest off the mark. The lack of regulation has created a wild west-type of environment that has allowed the private sector to establish its own rules. The Attorney General’s office is still struggling to implement a revamped version of the Privacy Law, covering the offshore transfer of Australian’s data by companies such as Mastercard. While the government contemplates digital ID legislation, EFTPOS and the Big Four Banks are going ahead with their own biometric ID system, ConectID.

We can try to imagine what a fully digitalised world governing all our activities will look like in 50 years time. All value will have been digitised: everything- from labor, natural resources, public services (including welfare programs), bonds and commodities- will exist as a digital asset to be traded as a token on an automated platform.

Wages will be supplanted by access to goods and services. Social credit and its public-private algorithms may determine how we live.

Think of someone in the 1920s trying to imagine the world of the 1970s or 80s. It would be laughable science fiction. That is where we are now, on the brink of an epochal change without the governments and financial institutions knowing where this ride into the future without a seat belt will take us. The young, snapping at all the sparkly lures flashing before their eyes, will be there and they can decide the balance between what digitalisation gave and what it took away.



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