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ACCC’s northern inquiry: treading water and diving down rabbit holes

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) sprawling inquiry into soaring premiums in the country’s north is yet to really get to grips with the problem, even as it moves towards the business end of its three-year probe.

Submissions published last week in response to the inquiry’s first interim report spend much time responding to familiar issues that don’t go to the heart of the regional disparities facing people living in cyclone-prone areas.

Recommendations for improving disclosure are just as valid for southern states, and removal of taxes has long been sought by insurers across Australia – although higher prices make them even more onerous in north Queensland.

The report overlaps with issues addressed in the Hayne royal commission and Treasury consultations under way in Canberra, while the Australian Securities and Investments Commission advises the inquiry to also take account of new product design and distribution obligations and intervention powers.

The ACCC has dived back down the rabbit hole of comparison websites and diverted into the issue of broker commissions, recommended for review in three years by Commissioner Kenneth Hayne.

Submission responses divide along familiar lines and real solutions to northern Australia’s problems remain elusive – especially when the issue of government mitigation programs remains on the sidelines.

“Greater disclosure, a government-run aggregator site, other ideas, they will have no effect on the cost and availability of insurance in the north,” National Insurance Brokers Association (NIBA) CEO Dallas Booth says. “The true issue is the cost of damage by wind, and until you are addressing the cost of damage by wind, you are not actually fixing the problem.”

The ACCC opens the door for a more targeted approach in its list of focus areas for this year. These include looking at measures to further improve insurance affordability and availability and plans to undertake detailed case studies on sub-regions in northern Australia.

Actuarial reports and previous inquiries have already confirmed that premiums are higher in cyclone-exposed areas, as would be expected under normal principles operating in the insurance market.

Mitigation and improving resilience remain the front-line options for reducing risk and premiums, and are a heightened priority in the north.

But if governments want greater equity across the country, they may need to take on the problem more explicitly, NIBA’s submission to the ACCC inquiry suggests.

Mr Booth says feedback from brokers indicates widespread, severe wind damage that comes with cyclones such as Yasi and Debbie is the major cause of rising claims costs in the north, and that is an area that could be specifically targeted.

“It may well be desirable to examine the potential need for some form of government intervention that would take some of the high cost of extreme weather events out of the insurance pool,” the NIBA submissions says.

“These costs would need to be met by some alternative funding mechanism, in such a way that the underlying insurance market could continue to operate in an efficient and competitive manner.”

That sounds eerily like the re-emergence of the reinsurance pool and mutual insurer options considered and discarded by a previous government study, the Northern Australia Insurance Premiums Taskforce, which reported in 2015.

It wasn’t favoured by insurers then, and it probably wouldn’t be now. But Mr Booth says there is scope for a more up-to-date and thorough analysis – a stand that could put NIBA at odds with the insurers.

“NIBA would be pleased to participate in discussions along these lines,” its submission says. “Extensive knowledge exists within NIBA members in relation to alternative risk funding mechanisms round the world.”

Current potential examples are provided by the government-backed Australian Reinsurance Pool Corporation, which exists for terrorism risks, or something along the lines of the UK’s Flood Re.

The ACCC’s focus areas for this year also include undertaking detailed case studies on sub-regions in northern Australia.

NIBA again strongly recommends engaging with brokers in the regions to gain a first-hand understanding of how the insurance market works.

Townsville City Council, hit by flooding this year, says it is keen to offer the area’s recent and historical disaster experience as a source of further information and study. The region was also severely hit by Cyclone Yasi in 2011.

The Insurance Council of Australia supports a Townsville case study and stresses it is the role of government at all levels to improve risk mitigation, modernise building codes, ensure appropriate land use and contribute to the removal of taxes on insurance.

Further areas of ACCC focus this year include examining premium adjustments, identifying and investigating barriers to insurer expansion or re-entry into the northern market, and understanding non-insurance and how it may be addressed.

The ACCC is due to deliver its second interim report on November 20 and its final recommendations a year later.

Much good may come out of the process, but it remains to be seen how effectively the ACCC responds to the specific issues facing Australia’s north. And even whether it can without addressing the basic need to make buildings and infrastructure more capable of withstanding cyclones.