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Wednesday 29 May 2019

FCA Conference 2019: Highlights

By: James Degenhardt

The FCA Conference this year delivered a program of events which spanned five days, and broke attendance records with over 800 delegates registered from across the financial counselling and community sectors, government, industry and ombudsman schemes. The conference took place in Melbourne, and used the theme of "Curiosity" to deep-dive into various subjects - some topical, and others previously unexplored.

After a stirring Welcome to Country from Janet Galpin on behalf of the Boon Wurrung peoples, the conference acquired an impetus to "meet with purpose" (from the Boon Wurrung greeting 'wominjeka'). This was followed by an inspiring keynote speech from award winning journalist, Peter Greste, on 'speaking truth to power'. Peter's message not only conveyed the importance of telling peoples' stories to affect change, but also highlighted the inherent resilience that all humans possess.

“Bad things happen to people not because of decisions they’ve made, but because of things that happen to them. What we can control is how we respond in those situations.”

Delia Rickard, Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), added to Peter's sentiments by expressing how financial counsellors have contributed significantly to the resilience of the people they assist. Delia shared a number of initiatives that the ACCC have undertaken with the assistance of financial counsellors reporting the issues they are encountering on a daily basis. 

FCA CEO, Fiona Guthrie, spoke with key figures from the Australian Banking Association (ABA), Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA), Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and Consumer Action Law Centre on the current landscape and expected future following the recent Banking Royal Commission. Chair of ASIC, James Shipton, emphasised the role of enforcement in deterring bad behaviour by institutions. He reported that ASIC is focusing on developing new tools for detecting wrongdoing. David Locke, Chief Ombudsman at AFCA, announced that from 1 July AFCA will be releasing all of its decisions, and naming financial firms, to highlight and compare the conduct of the institutions. Chris Cuppitt, Executive Director of Policy for the ABA, reaffirmed the banks' need to remain accountable to the community. 

These ideas were echoed again later during a session on banks' interactions with customers who gamble. The banks have tightened their lending to existing customers where problem gambling is identified, but it was acknowledged by a panel of representatives from Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, NAB and ANZ, that more needs to be done between the banks to prevent vulnerable customers shopping for credit. One suggestion raised was that banks could better protect customers if they had the means to share customer data.

Keeping with its theme of "curiosity", FCA endeavoured to 'take the pulse' of its delegates by conducting a series of live polls on a variety of topics. The results revealed the apparent concern of many financial counsellors that 'Buy Now Pay Later' companies rarely practice responsible lending. It would not come as a surprise to many that financial counsellors also reported increasing levels of stress. FCRC Executive Officer, Sandy Ross, responded to the polls to explain the research FCRC has begun to identify the drivers of stress and demand, and find ways of building a resilient workforce.

At the Jan Pentland Conference Dinner, diners were entertained by the unparalleled Archie Roach, whose moving music was celebrated with a standing ovation.

This year the Jan Pentland Foundation awarded 16 scholarships which will assist with funds towards the completion of the Diploma of Financial Counselling. FCRC wishes to congratulate all of the scholarship recipients, in particular those from Victoria: Yazmin Cox and David Fagan.

The following day began with what is now a regular feature of the FCA Conference: SPOT Talks. Seven speakers took the spotlight to pose the question 'why not?'. The topics ranged from hardship practices, to "legal but harmful" businesses, to using data to create '3D' financial health checks.

Many Victorian FCs would recall the moving story of Sayema that was shared at our FCRC conference in 2016. Sayema's journey as a survivor of family violence incited several positive outcomes within the sector. In her powerfully delivered SPOT talk, Sayema highlighted the need for further reforms to address the inadequacies of many service providers in supporting people affected by family violence. She reminded us that for many women the physical pain can often be more bearable than dealing with unfair systems and practices. She once again acknowledged the work of financial counsellors in helping her to find her voice.

Recognition of the continuous hard work of financial counsellors featured prominently throughout the conference. FCA erected a 'gratitude garden' which was decorated with messages of thanks from financial counselling clients across Australia. Those words also formed part of a conference 'theme song' which recurred throughout the event. 

It was no small feat for the FCA team to bring together a conference of this calibre, and no doubt delegates left with a feeling that many of their curiosities had been satisfied. We look forward to seeing what FCA has to offer in Darwin next year.