Consumers may be forgiven for seeing some unlikely parallels in the frozen berry contamination scare and the compromised NAB financial planner headlines. Certainly contracting Hepatitis A from a smoothie seems more immediately alarming than having one’s savings slowly milked by the shortcomings of ‘inappropriate’ advice.
But similar issues around labelling, regulation, alert-raising and political inertia pervade both areas -- directly diluting our ability to make informed choices and rely on presumed protections around our money and our life. Much has been made of the gaps and confusion in Australia’s country of origin food labels meaning it’s hard to know where stuff comes from. The ACCC has a handy 30-page guide.
Yet it’s also hard to know just who owns or licences your friendly financial planner short of interrogating various product disclosure statements, financial services guides and the like. The complexity and lack of plain speaking as to the origins and allegiances of imported food and home-grown financial advice do the consumer no favours.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with blueberries from China or planners aligned to the CBA but in both cases there’s been some evidence of rottenness in the systems. So isn’t it fair enough to declare openly where you come from, or who owns you, and let others make up their minds how your offerings stack up?
Both areas also suffer, given their present woes, from inadequate regulation and a surveillance level at far lower levels than the public might reasonably expect. Only 5% of imported foodstuffs are tested and then only for residues, which can do long-term damage, and not microbes, which tend to create more immediate symptoms.
The renewed calls for a royal commission into financial planning and ASIC highlight similar concerns about the range and depth of surveillance around this industry. In both the NAB and berry scares the alert as to the existence and extent of the consumer detriment was not raised by the bank’s or the producer’s internal systems.
It was doctors’ detective work with their patients which pointed the finger at the suspect fruit and it was customer’s complaints as their worst suspicions were realised that made the NAB sit up and do something. The bank fired and eased out 31 planners some of whom have gone onto practice their craft elsewhere free from any sanction. It also paid more than $10m compensation.
And incredibly there’s more chance of cleaning up and controlling risky imports of Hep A berries from China than providing consumers with the same protections from infectious, incompetent and insensitive planners here.
The final common ground is government’s inability to make change where it’s needed. Both sides of government have sat for some years on a bio-security report implementation of which may have, if not preventing the berry issue, have assuaged public concern. Likewise for sometime both sides of government have kicked around legislation around financial advice, implementation of which might not solve all the problems but would go some way to addressing them.
My belief is that in six months to a year the berry scare will be largely forgotten and the issue addressed but the crisis in confidence around planners will still be far from resolved.