AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Rick Barker, Member of Parliament and Labour Whip has been named Credit Union Person of the Year by the New Zealand Association of Credit Unions (NZACU) at their Annual General Meeting. Barker gave Credit Union Times an exclusive interview to discuss the honor. The problems with banks in New Zealand is one of the reasons Barker is such a strong credit union supporter. He described the current situation for financial institutions in New Zealand by saying, “All of the major trading banks in New Zealand are foreign owned. The exception being the smallest, the Taranaki Trading Bank.” He explained that this has resulted “not only in profits going off shore, but strategic decisions being made in Sydney or Melbourne”. These decisions affect New Zealand citizens, Barker said. Barker talked about “the general concern that the banks are alienating themselves from the general public and the small deposit holder.” He doesn’t worry about the larger client, since they’ll have the attention of the banks, but he does worry about the small clients. He also commented that bank service standards are declining. This is reflected in survey results. Barker’s support of credit unions is nothing new. As an MP from Tukituki he thinks of the concerns of people in his district. “Many of my constituents have struggled to get a bank account,” he remarked. Accounts are necessary for beneficiaries because the social welfare agency will no longer pay by check. “Payments will only be made into an account. Banks don’t like these people as they usually withdraw their money immediately as it is put in there,” he said. Barker is aware when you live on minimal income you need it entirely to pay for daily expenses, and can’t participate in investments. He regrets that “some banks put a minimum deposit as a requirement for opening an account. This barrier ensures that they can not open an account leaving many of these people to use another person’s account.” Barker knows of cases where the holder of the account has exacted fees to allow others to use their account. Barker stated, “It is amazing that access to a bank account can be a tradable service.” Because credit unions do not have these barriers Barker has actively encouraged many people to join the local credit unions. He said, “I know they will be treated as people. They will not have onerous fees imposed on them.” He also claims never to have been disappointed with a referral to a credit union. However, one-on-one referrals only go so far, and credit unions in New Zealand need legislation to improve their status to allow them to compete on a level playing field. Barker has tackled this by drafting a bill and is waiting for it to be “drawn,” a local term to bring it forward for consideration. Not content with a single route, Barker also has been working with the Minister of Commerce to have the Government initiate legislation in its own name.” Barker runs into the same problems as any legislative leader anywhere in the world with competition for House time against other potential legislation. Why is he so sensitive to the needs of his constituents? It goes beyond wanting votes. He recalled how he was “brought up by my grandparents who lived on a pension.” Before he became an MP in 1993 he was a trade union official representing workers in hotels, restaurants and hospitals, traditionally not high earners. He’s been and worked with people of limited resources. Barker sang the praises of New Zealand credit unions. “I think they are an excellent banking institution. One of their best attributes is that they are owned and controlled by those who join them.” Referring to the many bank mergers, he compared credit unions favorably once again. “It is almost impossible to have them taken over, and it can certainly only happen with the willing consent of a majority of account holders. The credit union controls its own destiny which is different from other banks where it is the owners of the shares who make the decisions, and their decisions are not necessarily in the best interests of the account holders.” In presenting the Person of the Year award to Barker, NZACU and World Council of Credit Unions Board Member Neil McDonald said. “He has always been free and available for discussions and advice.” The award was given for the first time to the person who “contributed most to the strength and growth of the Credit Union Movement in New Zealand during the year.” – dlnelson7@hotmail.com