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The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (commonly just the Commonwealth Bank) is the second largest bank in Australia, after the National Australia Bank. It was originally a government-owned bank, but the Keating Labor government privatised it in the 1990s.
Foundation and Early History (1911-1941)
The Commonwealth Bank of Australia was founded by an Australian Act of Parliament in 1911 called Commonwealth Bank Act. Bank Nationalisation was the policy of the Andrew Fisher Labor Government. In a rare move for the time, the bank was to have both savings and general bank business. The bank was also the first bank in Australia to receive a Federal Government guarantee. The bank's first Governor was Sir Denison Miller.
The first branch (the Melbourne branch) of the bank opened on July 15, 1912. In an agreement with Australia Post that exists to this day, the bank also traded through post office agencies. In 1912 it merged with the state savings bank in Tasmania and by 1913 it had branches in all six states.
In 1916 the bank moved its head office to Sydney. It also followed the Australian army into New Guinea where it opened a branch in Rabaul and agencies elsewhere.
In 1920, the bank assumed the responsibility for the issue of Australian bank notes from the Department of Treasury, the beginning of its acquisition of central bank powers.
In 1920, the Commonwealth Bank merged with the state savings bank in Queensland.
In 1931 the government transferred to the bank the savings bank business of the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales (est. 1871) and the current account and fixed deposit business of the Rural Bank Department. The bank also acquired the State Savings Bank of Western Australia (est. 1863).
Central Bank (1941-1960)
In 1942, the CBC suspended its operations in Papua New Guinea as the Japanese Army captured many of the towns in which it operated, and bombed Port Moresby. The bank resumed operations later, possibly in 1944.
The Commonwealth Bank received almost all central bank powers in emergency legislation passed during World War II and at the end of the war it used this power to begin a dramatic expansion of the economy. This was also the aim of the Government at the time, which colossally expanded immigration programmes. To respond to this, the bank established a Migrant Information Service. Predictably, the bank also expanded during this period, in just five years it opened hundreds of branches throughout Australia and in 1951 the bank established a branch in the Solomon Islands.
In 1958 and 1959, there was a controversy concerning the dual function of the bank as the central bank on the one hand and a general bank on the other. As a result of this, the bank was split, giving the reserve bank function to the Reserve Bank of Australia and the general bank function to the Commonwealth Banking Corporation.
From 1958 to 1976 the Commonwealth Bank operated savings bank agencies in the New Hebrides.
A new Commonwealth Development Bank was established in 1960 and during the 1970s the bank diversified its business into areas like insurance and travel. It established a finance company, the Commonwealth Bank Finance Corporation in 1974. The bank also became more heavily involved in foreign currency trading and international banking in general.
The bank actively supported the introduction of decimal currency in the years leading up to 1966 and, like most banks, it gradually converted its paper records onto a new computer-based system. The bank created the first credit card in Australia in 1974 when it established Bankcard. In later years the bank began offering Mastercards (1984) and Visa (1993) cards as well.
In 1974, as Papua New Guinea approached independence, the bank formally handed over its PNG operations to the newly created and government-owned Papua New Guinea Banking Corporation (PNGBC). The bank retained a restricted branch in Port Moresby that it finally closed in 1982.
In 1981 the bank transferred its operations in the Solomon Islands to the National Bank of Solomon Islands, which operated a joint venture (51-49, Commonwealth and Government of the Solomon Islands).
Privatisation and the Colonial (1990-2001)
In 1989 the bank acquired 75% of ASB Bank in New Zealand.
In 1991 the bank acquired the State Bank of Victoria (est. 1842). Between 1991 and 1996 the Australian government fully privatised the bank.
In 1994 Commonwealth sold its shares in the National Bank of Solomon Islands to Bank of Hawaii.
In 2000, the bank merged with Colonial Ltd. This brought into the fold Colonial’s stake in Colonial National Bank, the former National Bank of Fiji. The bank also acquired the remaining 25% of ASB Bank.
- Commonwealth Bank - Official site
- Commonwealth Bank Group ephemera digitised and held by the National Library of Australia
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