Shifting deckchairs

The Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority may be appointing new leadership but the perceived conflicts of interest and false assumptions of the mandatory education regime remain the same.

FASEA will have a new ship's captain, but the rearranged deckchairs are unlikely to defend against the icebergs ahead.

The government authority's chair Catherine Walter has announced that FASEA CEO Deen Sanders will be stepping down to “continue his long-standing career in professional standards”.

The statement was vague (as public sector statements usually are) as to whether Dr Sanders left of his own volition or was pushed out by the minister that appointed him just a few months ago and board he helped assemble.


Either way, given the heat and contention that has accompanied this policy rollout, he will no doubt thoroughly enjoy his post-FASEA life whatever shape it takes, far from the pitchforks of dissatisfied advisers.

Now that he has the time, I invite the good doctor to speak to ifa any time about his experience and perhaps provide some of that elusive “clarity” that he and his boss, Kelly O'Dwyer, have so often promised.

FASEA will be contracting a third-party recruiter to help find a permanent chief executive.

“FASEA is seeking a credentialed leader with superior communication and stakeholder management skills,” Ms Walter said.

It is unclear whether she actually meant “superior” to Dr Sanders or whether that was just an unfortunate choice of words.

What is clearer is that his exit will have little impact on FASEA’s ability to effectively stamp its authority on an industry that has already written it off as just another bumbling bureaucracy eager to please an ailing emperor.

Dr Sanders might have been a little tight-lipped for our liking. But his leadership was never the problem.

What good will existed between FASEA and the industry it is tasked with monitoring has all but been expunged now, as the departure of its leader only further paints a picture of panic and crisis, and adds to the prevailing uncertainty and stress.

The body has even managed to alienate the FPA and its members – one of the few pockets of the industry that have actually supported its creation from the outset – in a textbook case of how to make a complete mess of external stakeholder relations.

By deliberately omitting the Certified Financial Planner course from its updated guidance, FASEA has discriminated against the very advisers and association that have been actively lobbying for higher professional standards and have invested heavily in their own CPD over many years.

The FPA has finally confirmed to its members it will be seeking recognition of the CFP under the next round of guidance, which will provide some of them some comfort.

But given FPA chair Neil Kendall's comments that the FPA was “almost 100 per cent” certain the CFP would be included as a bridging course – a statement that has now made them look foolish and overconfident – you can only assume the association is not too happy with its old mates on the FASEA board.

And it is precisely that mateship that has likely scared FASEA into its CFP conundrum. 

Conflicts of interest have dogged the organisation since the board’s make-up was announced, particularly regarding ties to the FPA and education providers.

First there was the all-too-cosy and no doubt regrettable “gifting” of the FPEC curriculum to FASEA in its early days, which has been applied by the government in a way that the FPA did not intend.

And then there are the personal ties. Dr Sanders was formerly an employee of the FPA, board member Matthew Rowe was its chair, and the newly-appointed interim managing director Mark Brimble was chair of FPEC until his shock resignation due to – you guessed it – conflicts of interest.

They have all sat in the same meetings, attended and organised the same conferences, appeared before the same inquiries and consumed the same Kool-Aid.

But since FASEA seems so hellbent on maintaining a facade of impartiality, the choice of Dr Brimble does seem a little counterintuitive.

While he is eminently qualified for the role, his concurrent positions as a staff academic with Griffith University (an organisation that may well profit from the FASEA regime) and author of textbooks that may well be required learning for approved courses, continue to raise questions of propriety. 

Dr Brimble sits on the board alongside a number of other individuals who also have commercial relationships with education providers that may be set to benefit directly from the board's decisions. 

All of this gives the somewhat ironic - if stinky - impression of a government body with more conflicts than the industry it has been tasked with cleaning up.  

But more importantly, the shifting deckchairs will not improve the situation because the entire regime is predicated on the false assumption that more education necessarily equates to more ethical behaviour.

It is, quite simply, bad public policy.

Replacing one PhD with another, or trying to achieve the optics of objectivity by omitting the CFP, will not fix the FASEA farce – just as introducing mandatory education standards will not save consumers from harm.

Australia's financial advisers watch on with frustration that is reaching Titanic proportions.

The government better hope the broader voting public doesn't start paying attention.

Shifting deckchairs
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