1.1 Four observations

Those analyses, taken together, will reveal the importance of four observations about what has been shown by the Commission’s work: the connection between conduct and reward; the asymmetry of power and information between financial services entities and their customers; the effect of conflicts between duty and interest; and holding entities to account.

Each of those observations should be explained.

First, in almost every case, the conduct in issue was driven not only by the relevant entity’s pursuit of profit but also by individuals’ pursuit of gain, whether in the form of remuneration for the individual or profit for the individual’s business. Providing a service to customers was relegated to second place. Sales became all important. Those who dealt with customers became sellers. And the confusion of roles extended well beyond front line service staff. Advisers became sellers and sellers became advisers.

The conduct identified and condemned in this Final Report and in the Interim Report can and should be examined by reference to how the person doing the relevant acts, or failing to do what should have been done, was rewarded for the conduct.

Rewarding misconduct is wrong. Yet incentive, bonus and commission schemes throughout the financial services industry have measured sales and profit, but not compliance with the law and proper standards. Incentives have been offered, and rewards have been paid, regardless of whether the sale was made, or profit derived, in accordance with law. Rewards have been paid regardless of whether the person rewarded should have done what they did.

Second, entities and individuals acted in the ways they did because they could. Entities set the terms on which they would deal, consumers often had little detailed knowledge or understanding of the transaction and consumers had next to no power to negotiate the terms. At most, a consumer could choose from an array of products offered by an entity, or by that entity and others, and the consumer was often not able to make a wellinformed choice between them. There was a marked imbalance of power and knowledge between those providing the product or service and those acquiring it.

Third, consumers often dealt with a financial services entity through an intermediary. The client might assume that the person standing between the client and the entity that would provide a financial service or product acted for the client and in the client’s interests. But, in many cases, the intermediary is paid by, and may act in the interests of, the provider of the service or product. Or, if the intermediary does not act for the provider, the intermediary may act only in the interests of the intermediary.

The interests of client, intermediary and provider of a product or service are not only different, they are opposed. An intermediary who seeks to ‘stand in more than one canoe’ cannot.[1] Duty (to client) and (self) interest pull in opposite directions.

Chapter 7 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) (the Corporations Act), and the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009 (Cth) (the NCCP Act) (but not the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (Cth) – the SIS Act), speak of ‘managing’ conflicts of interest.[2] But experience shows that conflicts between duty and interest can seldom be managed; selfinterest will almost always trump duty. The evidence given to the Commission showed how those who were acting for a client too often resolved conflicts between duty to the client, and the interests of the entity, adviser or intermediary, in favour of the interests of the entity, adviser or intermediary and against the interests of the client. Those persons and entities obliged to pursue the best interests of clients or members too often sought to strike some compromise between the interests of clients or members and their own interests or the interests of a related third party (such as the person’s employer, or the entity’s owner). A ‘good enough’ outcome was pursued instead of the best interests of the relevant clients or members. (Notions of best interests and conflicts between duty and interest are further examined below in connection with mortgage brokers, financial advice and superannuation.)

Fourth, too often, financial services entities that broke the law were not properly held to account. Misconduct will be deterred only if entities believe that misconduct will be detected, denounced and justly punished. Misconduct, especially misconduct that yields profit, is not deterred by requiring those who are found to have done wrong to do no more than pay compensation. And wrongdoing is not denounced by issuing a media release.

The Australian community expects, and is entitled to expect, that if an entity breaks the law and causes damage to customers, it will compensate those affected customers. But the community also expects that financial services entities that break the law will be held to account. The community recognises, and the community expects its regulators to recognise, that these are two different steps: having a wrongdoer compensate those harmed is one thing; holding wrongdoers to account is another.

Some may see what has emerged from the work of the Commission only through the lens of public accountability for what has happened. And public accountability is critically important. But it cannot be the only focus. It is necessary to look to the future as well as to the past.

The responses and recommendations made in this Report will attract varied responses. Those who oppose change will appeal to real or supposed difficulty in altering present arrangements. Reference will be made to change bringing ‘unintended consequences’. That argument is easily made because it has no content; the ‘consequences’ feared are not identified.

But choices must now be made. The arrangements of the past have allowed conduct of the kinds and extent described here and in the Interim Report of the Commission. The damage done by that conduct to individuals and to the overall health and reputation of the financial services industry has been large. Saying sorry and promising not to do it again has not prevented recurrence. The time has come to decide what is to be done in response to what has happened. The financial services industry is too important to the economy of the nation to allow what has happened in the past to continue or to happen again.


[1] Re Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs; Ex parte Ame (2005) 222 CLR 439, 448.

[2] The SIS Act requires trustees to give priority to the duties to and interests of the beneficiaries over the duties to, or the interests of, others. See s 52(2)(d).

94 thoughts on “1.1 Four observations”

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