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Federal

Mar 25, 2014

Did the pensioners save financial consumer protection?

Opposition from two key groups created a major impediment to the government's repeal of FOFA. And both, surprisingly, are Coalition heartland.

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Opposition from two key sources is likely to have driven the government’s “pause” on its repeal of the Future of Financial Advice reforms: from financial planners themselves, and from pensioners.

Concerns about the repeal package have been widespread: Industry Super Network has led a campaign against it; consumer groups have criticised it; much of the business press has savaged it. But two critics stand out in terms of their impact.

In policy terms, last week’s public attack on the repeal by the Financial Planning Association, which covers about half of all financial planners in the country, was highly damaging. The FPA had previously made its concerns about the restoration of commissions clear — it supports the rest of the repeal package — but FPA chairman Matthew Rowe went on Lateline to criticise commissions and then published a long article explaining his opposition. In that article, Rowe intimated that there’d been some bad faith on the government’s part:

“However, there appears to have been a change put forward by the Coalition government that was not clearly articulated to the advice profession previously. This change is something that, fundamentally, the FPA cannot support. I refer to the re-introduction of commissions on investment and superannuation products.”

This directly contradicts the line from Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who crafted the Coalition’s gutting of FOFA while in opposition and returned to the issue with the “standing aside” (now likely to be long term) of assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos. Cormann insists the Coalition is merely implementing what it committed to do before the election, and that the only things wrong with his repeal of FOFA is bad media reporting (Cormann objects to references to the “repeal” of FOFA, which even The Australian has used) and misunderstandings.

As Rowe’s comment indicates, he disagrees. And given the Coalition’s entire policy on financial services is guided by the interests of financial planners rather than consumers, it’s a serious disagreement. That appears to have prompted the faintly sinister statement from Cormann yesterday: “I want to have further conversations with key stakeholders and remind them what they agreed to before the election.” Who, exactly, agreed to what with Cormann before the election? And an agreement implies some sort of exchange — what was Cormann expecting to get in his agreement, with the FPA or with whomever he made an agreement?

Either way, it sounds like Rowe will be summoned to Cormann’s office for some re-education.

But if the FPA’s concerns were a policy problem, the pensioners were a political problem, and a major one. Wealth management is a key issue for older Australians, and they feature disproportionately as victims of financial collapses like Storm and Westpoint. Both National Seniors Australia and the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association of NSW weren’t merely concerned about the FOFA repeal, they had actually launched campaigns against it, complaining not merely about the restoration of commissions but also about matters such as the notorious removal of the opt-in requirement, which will prevent financial planners from taking fees for financial advice never sought or used by clients.

With people like the well-connected seniors’ representative Everald Compton — previously head of National Seniors Australia — adding their voices to the anti-repeal cause, the campaigns promised to be highly damaging to the government, especially given the looming Western Australian Senate election. National Seniors Australia has a huge membership, one likely to be very concerned about the prospect of losing their life savings in a Storm or Westpoint-type collapse because of an unscrupulous financial planner.

It’s a measure of just how badly Sinodinos botched the repeal that he managed to have one of the two beneficiaries of the package offside, as well as a politically powerful, and usually Coalition-aligned, group like seniors, and even the business press. Moreover, the entire strategy of trying to sneak the package into law without  it being noticed has collapsed about as quickly as Sinodinos’s prospects for a frontbench spot. But messily, it took Cormann nearly a week to work out how bad the damage was and press the pause button — just yesterday morning Cormann had published a long op-ed in the Financial Review explaining how determined he was to press ahead with the package.

Unless he can convince seniors groups that black is white, commissions aren’t commissions and a FOFA repeal isn’t a repeal, unpausing might be a long time coming.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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