COMMBANK YET AGAIN MAKES THE CASE FOR A ROYAL COMMISSION

The Commonwealth Bank has yet again made the case for a Royal Commission into the banking and financial services sector, with the bank releasing an update list of the costs of current rip offs and scandals under the cloak of the resignation of the Chief Executive Officer.

Today under the cover of the announcement regarding Ian Narev’s impending resignation and in the wake of the allegations of more than 53,000 breaches of money laundering and counter terrorism financing laws, the Commonwealth Bank has itself provided more reasons to support Labor’s call for a Royal Commission – with examples of insurance rip-offs, employee entitlement rip-offs, credit card overcharging and continued ASIC investigations.

Today the Commonwealth Bank has reported:

  • It will repay more than $10 million to 65,000 customers who were sold consumer credit insurance they would never be able to claim against because they did not meet the appropriate employment criteria
  • A sharp increase in the amount of superannuation payments owed to part-time staff from around 7,000 staff to 36,000 totalling $13.8 million plus interest
  • ASIC is investigating cases where CBA customers were ripped off with inflated home loan protection insurance premiums
  • ASIC is investigating claims that customers were receiving personal advice rather than general advice during the sale of Essential Super
  • The Bank will refund up to $5 million in credit card charges on disputed transactions.

Last week the Treasurer said that “all options” were on the table when it came to the Commonwealth Bank but that ‘tough talk’ has been shown now to be nothing more than empty rhetoric. It’s clear that the only option left to the Turnbull Government is a Royal Commission.

It’s time for the Prime Minister and Treasurer to stop protecting their banker mates and instead stand up for banking customers.

What will it take for Malcolm Turnbull to show some leadership and join with Labor, the majority of the Senate cross-bench and members of his own backbench and establish a Royal Commission immediately.

This is a joint media release with Matt Thistlethwaite MP, Labor's Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury.

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TIME TO BACK THE LITTLE GUYS

The Senate today passed Labor’s access to justice policy, which will help small businesses take cases of anti-competitive behaviour to court.

Currently, small businesses are less likely to take up private litigation against anti-competitive behaviour.

This is because big businesses have deep pockets and armies of lawyers, so the risk of small businesses being bankrupted by legal fees is a significant disincentive to taking action against anti-competitive conduct.

But this bill will allow a small business request a ‘no adverse costs order’ early in a court case. If the judge decides that the case is in the public interest, the small business will not have the risk of paying the other side’s costs if they lose.

The bill will now return to the House of Representatives, where Malcolm Turnbull has the chance to show whose side he’s on – small business or multinational goliaths.

This reform is based on evidence of what works. Now it just needs the Turnbull Government to stand up for the little guys.

THURSDAY, 10 AUGUST 2017

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GOVERNMENT’S PRODUCT INTERVENTION POWERS GO MISSING AS CONSUMERS CONTINUE TO GET A RAW DEAL

The Turnbull Government needs to get serious about reforms to consumer protection laws in the wake of an announcement today by the corporate watchdog that QBE will refund $15.9 million to 35,000 customers who were sold add-on insurance that they didn’t need.

Today’s announcement by ASIC is clear evidence that consumers continue to get a bad deal under current laws and reforms need to be made to improve consumer protections against junk insurance.

ASIC has found that QBE Guaranteed Asset Protection (GAP) insurance:

  • was sold where there was unlikely to be a gap between the insured value of the car and the loan balance, for example because the customer paid a large deposit
  • duplicated existing cover held by consumers
  • provided consumers with more insurance than they needed

ASIC also found that QBE Consumer Credit Protection (CCI) insurance was sold to young people who had no dependents and who were unlikely to need the cover.

According to ASIC: “CCI has long been associated with poor consumer outcomes in Australia and overseas, including consumers being unaware that they have purchased CCI and consumers being ineligible to make a claim on their CCI policy.”

In April 2016 the Government announced that it would bring forward draft legislation by the middle of this year on the product intervention power which would afford the regulator the powers to ban products such as these altogether.

To-date we have seen no legislation and Treasury officials confirmed recently that drafting of the laws had not yet begun.

The longer the Government drags its heels, the higher the number of vulnerable consumers who will be signed up to insurance products they don’t need and be ripped off.

Reforms to protect against add-on insurance look like going the same way as the Turnbull Government’s much hyped but not delivered credit card and small amount credit contract reforms.

This Government is pretty quick to make promises when it wants a headline but then does nothing to deliver much needed reforms.

The Turnbull Government  is more focused on division and disunity internally rather than doing the job they are elected to do and which, when it comes to junk insurance, would be delivering reforms which protect consumers.

WEDNESDAY 2 AUGUST 2017

 

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THE TIME HAS COME TO CRACK DOWN ON ‘DEBT VULTURES’

Debt management or "credit repair" services can make some alluring promises to those with financial problems. They say they can silence the phone, turn away the debt collectors, wipe away black marks from your credit record - and make those money woes go away.

But so often these promises are not met. In too many cases, people in financial trouble can end up in an even worse position after paying hundreds of dollars to these operators for very little, if anything, in return.

When are you eligible for a repair, replacement or a refund? The Australian Consumer Law gives you more rights than you might know.

One of the things debt management firms promise is to help those in financial hardship to manage their budget. This might include paying money into the firm's bank account and letting it handle your creditors and repayments. While a single repayment sounds convenient, too often the debt management firms will take a big cut in fees. There are even stories of firms remembering to take their fees on time but forgetting to pay your bills, and so the debt collectors keep calling.

Some firms spruik "credit repair services" and promise to remove negative listings on your credit record – of course for a handsome fee. An investigation by ASIC found that debt firms charge high upfront fees of anywhere between $495 and $1095 for this service and these fees do not even wipe your credit record clean. These are payments just to remove one listing.

Debt management firms never tell their clients that it's actually impossible to remove negative credit listings unless there is an error in the listing and the fees are the same regardless of whether or not they are successful in getting the negative listing wiped.

This precise scenario happened to Ben (not his real name) who called a credit repair company after seeing an ad on TV promising to wash his credit history clean.

The salesperson called back with good news – they would be able to fix his credit history. They promised to send him a booklet, forms to return, and to assign him a case manager to help him as long as he was able to pay $1000 immediately, otherwise they'd have to start the process all over again.

But as Ben discovered, they were more than happy to take the money, but they did not provide the service. In fact, Ben didn't have any defaults or incorrect listings to "fix". The credit repairer hadn't bothered to check his credit report.

Ben's repeated requests for a refund were ignored until consumer advocacy organisation, Consumer Action Law Centre got involved and helped him sort it out.

It's a pretty shady place these firms get to hang out in to recruit new customers, in some cases looking to find new clients by trawling through court records to find the names of people with debt judgments against them.

Given the financial vulnerability of their client base, it's deeply concerning that these firms are able to charge hundreds of dollars upfront to financially stressed people with the vague and often undelivered promise of helping them to manage their debt. It's not uncommon for these firms to offer new lines of credit to clients to "help them" manage their way out of debt.

A 2016 report by ASIC found that debt management firms had "opaque" fees, costs were "often high and heavily front loaded" and the quality of advice was patchy where "some firms had a poor understanding of the relevant law" and little information was given about risks to clients.

ASIC has recently fined some of these firms for misleading statements when they have claimed they were backed by the federal government or by big banks, when they were not.

However, ASIC is very limited in the oversight it has of debt management firms.

This is because debt management firms live in a regulatory void – they're not regulated as financial advisers nor are they regulated under the consumer credit framework.

In a sense they operate in the financial services equivalent of no-man's land and it's time this changed.

For a start debt management firms should be required to act with integrity and in the interests of their clients. They should be required to provide appropriate advice and they should have to ensure that their employees are trained to provide assistance to people in financial hardship. They should be forced to sign up to an ombudsman scheme so that people who have complaints can access a quick and free external dispute service.

Debt management firms should also have to disclose the fees they charge and be required to tell clients about the availability of free alternatives to help them, including, ombudsman services, community legal services and financial counsellors.

It's time that people struggling to manage their debts are given appropriate consumers protections when it comes to dealing with these firms. Consumer groups are on board, community legal centres are on board, as are the banks.

If debt management firms are to operate, they need to be regulated like every other financial service. They cannot be allowed to prey, like vultures, in an unregulated environment on vulnerable people who are often facing the most difficult time of their lives.

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VISION IMPAIRED AUSTRALIANS MUST HAVE ACCESS TO BANK EFTPOS MACHINES

The Commonwealth Bank must do all it can to make its new EFTPOS machines accessible to blind and vision impaired Australians.

It is completely unacceptable that the Commonwealth Bank’s 75,000 new touchscreen terminals do not have a tactile keypad, meaning blind people cannot use them.

It is discriminating against 350,000 blind and vision impaired Australians and impacting the way they control their finances.

It is unrealistic to expect people to hand over their personal pin numbers so a transaction can be completed.

This is a matter of accessibility and it is clear that these new EFTPOS terminals are denying blind and vision impaired Australians access to many shops and restaurants that are using these machines.

I urge the bank to listen to the concerns of Blind Citizens Australia and work to make their machines accessible for everyone.

FRIDAY, 28 JULY 2017

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SCO-MO AT ODDS WITH TAX OFFICE OVER FIRST HOME SUPER SCHEME

Today marks another Scott Morrison stuff up, this time over the First Home Super Saver Scheme which has not even been introduced to Parliament yet.

The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has today sounded a warning to those who might contribute money into their super accounts in the absence of any supporting legislation, despite Scott Morrison at the same time urging potential first home buyers to start using the scheme. 

“Both measures are to commence on 1 July 2018. For the FHSSS, voluntary contributions made from 1 July 2017 will be eligible for withdrawal (provided all criteria are met) from 1 July 2018.” 

– Scott Morrison, Press Release, July 21, 2017.

Despite Sco-Mo’s encouraging words, the Government is still not able to answer simple questions about how it will operate and under what circumstances money will be released from the scheme.

The ATO – who are due to implement the scheme - have been quoted as saying: "we are unable to comment on policy that is yet to be enacted by Government" and, that:

"If you are contemplating participating in this measure, you should remember that the proposal is yet to be legislated, and as such, should ensure that you are fully aware of the implications of this before making any financial decisions. You may wish to seek advice from a licensed financial adviser."

  Australian Tax Office spokesperson, Huffington Post, July 25, 2017.

 

This is the another fail for a Scheme that won’t fix the housing affordability crisis but will undermine superannuation.

Labor will not support it. 

Rather than encouraging a raid on superannuation savings the Government should be supporting first home buyers by introducing policies that will actually work like reforming negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions.

The First Home Super Saver Scheme was a policy failure from the start – and the Government just keeps on stuffing it up.

TUESDAY 25 JULY 2017

 This is a joint media release with Senator Doug Cameron (NSW).

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GOVERNMENT FAILS TO ADDRESS UNPAID SUPER RIP-OFFS

Seven months of doing nothing on unpaid super, despite a detailed report sitting on the minister’s desk for that entire time, has resulted in a media release from the Turnbull Government which only promises to take action on one aspect of the issue at some point later this year.

In a response that can only be described woefully inadequate the Minister’s "announcement" doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to protect workers who will continue to miss out on billions of dollars in unpaid super payments each year.

Unpaid super in a $5.6 billion problem which affects around 2.7 million workers across Australia, many of whom are on low incomes and are missing out on as much as $2000 each year which should be going into their retirement savings.

In the time that Kelly O’Dwyer could have actually done something to address this super rip-off, a Labor instigated Senate Inquiry into unpaid super made 32 recommendations, one of which was to deal with the loophole which allows employers to reduce their compulsory super contributions when employees salary sacrifice into super.

What's lacking from today's announcement is a comprehensive strategy to address unpaid super across the board including responding to the other 31 recommendations made by the Senate report released back in May.

Labor is particularly concerned by recommendation 7 of this working group report, which in its application would reduce penalties for employers who do the wrong thing and not meet their super guarantee obligations.

The Abbott/Turnbull Government tried to water down these penalties once before and it needs to immediately rule out adopting this recommendation which would make it easier for employers to do the wrong thing.

The Minister needs to get serious about unpaid super and ensure that working people get paid the superannuation they have earnt so that it can maximise their retirement savings and relieve future pressure on the aged pension.

Liberals can’t be trusted on super. Labor created super and it is something that we will always fight to protect.

FRIDAY, 14 JULY 2017

This is a joint release with Senator Chris Ketter, Chair of the Senate Economics References Committee.

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TURNBULL GOVERNMENT FAILS ON NORTHERN AUSTRALIA INSURANCE

Despite failing to meet her own deadline to respond to the Northern Australia Insurance Premiums Taskforce (NAIP) Report by more than one year, Minister O'Dwyer is now attempting to shift the blame for her own failures and "do-nothing" approach to escalating insurance premiums in Northern Australia by blaming state governments and the insurance industry.

The Minister received the Taskforce Report back in November 2015 and promised to “provide a detailed response by 30 June 2016.” (Kelly O’Dwyer media release 4 March 2016).  

The response has never been provided despite the serious impact that escalating premiums are having on households and businesses in cyclone prone Northern Australia. In some cases people have had increases in their premiums of over 300 per cent.

The Taskforce report found that over the past twenty years losses from cyclones in northern Australia totalled $2.4b, or $115 million dollars per year and that future losses could be as much as $285 million dollars per year due to the risk of much larger catastrophes. 

Despite the Turnbull Government being fully aware of the risks and costs of cyclones including the impact that rising insurance costs are having on households and businesses in cyclone prone Northern Australia they continue to ignore the sensible recommendations of the Taskforce.

Straight forward recommendations included such as increased investment for household mitigation strategies, further research into mitigation, education campaigns and the possibility of targeted assistance for low income households to undertake mitigation works are all recommendations that the Turnbull Government could be progressing.

But instead of providing the promised response to the Taskforce report the Turnbull Government chose to point the finger squarely at the insurance industry and commissioned yet another review into the costs of Northern Australia Insurance premiums.

Last week the Minister sought to broaden out the blame to not include not only the insurance industry but the state governments of northern Australia as well. 

It’s well past time for the Minister to step up and take some responsibility here and focus on how best to help homeowners and businesses meet the costs of protecting themselves during natural disasters like cyclones instead of the petty finger pointing the Minister is currently engaging in.

As a first suggestion, maybe the Minister could provide the Turnbull Government’s response to the Taskforce's report that is now more than twelve months overdue? 

MONDAY, 10 JULY 2017

This is a joint media release with Labor's Shadow Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Jason Clare MP.

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GOVERNMENT MUST PROVIDE CLARITY TO VETERANS’ COMMUNITY

Labor is growing increasingly concerned of reports Government changes to superannuation legislation will adversely impact a number of veterans.

Labor has sought an urgent briefing from the Government on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Superannuation) Regulations 2017 and its expected impact on veterans.

Whilst the Government advised during Senate estimates there were no military pensioners taking their pension as a lump sum at the time the change was announced, it is clear they have not taken into consideration how this change would impact those veterans’ who have since elected for this tax treatment and the financial circumstances which they now find themselves facing.

Labor has previously expressed its concerns over the lack of clear information made available and the consequences of the Government’s disallowable instrument for veterans and ex-service personnel.

It is clear this issue is causing distress in the veterans and ex-service community, with the government failing to address their concerns.

We do not want to see our veterans left worse off by the Turnbull Government.

It is incumbent on the Government to address these issues and provide clarity and transparency on this issue.

The Government must engage in proper consultation with the veterans and ex-service community to work through these unintended consequences.

This is a joint release with Labor's Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs Amanda Rishworth MP.

 

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LABOR CONGRATULATES INSURERS ON REVISIONS TO TRAVEL INSURANCE COVER FOR MENTAL ILLNESS

Labor welcomes moves by some major insurers in Australia to remove exclusions in their policies that deny cover to people who cancel or change travel plans due to a mental illness that develops after they buy a policy.

This is an issue that affects thousands of Australians and today’s announcement by Cover-More Australia and QBE Insurance is a step in the right direction.

Labor held a roundtable with members of the insurance industry in early 2016 to discuss ways that travel insurance products could be revised to better cover people living with mental illnesses.

We believe there is further to go in order to provide appropriate cover for those with existing mental health conditions and would urge the insurers and the Turnbull Government to work together so that further improvements can be implemented.

Labor encourages other insurers who offer travel insurance products to follow the lead of those companies who have already taken action and revise their products to cover mental illnesses not just physical illness.

Labor will continue to work closely with the insurance industry, mental health sector and community legal centres and consumer groups to improve insurance cover for people living with a mental illness.

This is a joint media release with Labor's Shadow Ageing and Mental Health Minister Julie Collins MP.

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