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Hitch hinders Senate's ASIC inquiry

As a Senate inquiry into the performance of the corporate regulator gears up for the first of a number of hearings later this year, submissions are in limbo due to month-long technical problems with the Senate's submissions system.

As a Senate inquiry into the performance of the corporate regulator gears up for the first of a number of hearings later this year, submissions are in limbo due to month-long technical problems with the Senate's submissions system.

It means the public is in the dark as to how many submissions might have been made, or who might have made them, since the 70th submission was made on August 1.

The explanation for such a lengthy downtime is that the submissions system is "undergoing a comprehensive update and while we had hoped it would be up and running again by now, there have been some delays, which can happen in projects like this". The submissions are still being processed, we are told, and will be posted as soon as possible.

Bill Doherty, a victim of a rogue liquidator, said he was frustrated at the technical glitch.

"Many of us have held up submissions so that we can look at other areas of complaint and draw parallels with ASIC failures in that area which aggrieves us."

By that he means complaints about the Australian Securities and Investments Commission's regulation of insolvency practitioners may show similar failures in other areas including banking or broking.

"That would confirm fears that the entire ASIC regulatory system is broken rather than the breaks being limited to specific areas," he said.

The Senate inquiry into the performance of ASIC was triggered by a series of articles written by myself and Chris Vedelago into serious misconduct by the Commonwealth Bank's financial planning arm and the failure of the regulator to act promptly.

The reports revealed that a group of CBA insiders, including Jeff Morris, first contacted the regulator in October 2008 with detailed information about the goings on at the bank's financial planning arm. It took ASIC 16 months to launch an investigation into the bank.

ASIC made an initial submission to the inquiry in early August, admitting it had made mistakes in its handling of the scandal and should have acted faster.

Submissions close on October 21 and so far 70 have been lodged, many of which are either confidential or name withheld. Many of the submissions are tales of woe from people who felt they were done over by one of the banks and the regulator was missing in action.

It has been a constant theme over the years and appeared as a problem in a survey commissioned by ASIC into almost 1500 stakeholders between February and June 2013.

The survey identified four broad limitations. They included ASIC not acting quickly enough to investigate breaches of the law, that it does not clearly communicate what it is doing, that it needs to reduce red tape associated with compliance, and that it isn't sufficiently resourced to do its job.

According to senator John Williams, who called for the inquiry into ASIC, the limitations are not surprising. He said the purpose of the inquiry was to improve ASIC's efficiency and restore faith in the Australian public's eyes.

Williams said ASIC needed to be quicker to take action. He wanted to understand why the regulator took 16 months to act on information of CBA whistleblowers and 3½ years to act on another planner, Ricky Gillespie, who was banned for life last year.

Williams said he was also concerned how long it had taken ASIC to act on numerous other matters, including liquidator Stuart Ariff, who is serving a prison sentence. "I had to ride ASIC to get the file on Ariff to the DPP [Department of Public Prosecutions]. I shouldn't have to do their job for them," he said.

In terms of overall performance, only 3 per cent believed ASIC was doing an excellent job, 34 per cent believed it was doing a good job, 37 per cent believed it was doing a fair job, while 15 per cent believed it was doing a poor to very poor job. Eleven per cent didn't know.

The survey also asked questions including whether respondents believed the industry handles conflicts of interest by segment.

CBA whistleblower Jeff Morris said: "Only ASIC would need to commission a survey to find out the low esteem in which financial planners and the funds management industry are held by consumers. These numbers should be devastating for ASIC given their responsibility for regulating the industry. There is no cause for the self-satisfied complacency in [ASIC chairman Greg] Medcraft's comments."

Morris said the man on the street seems more in tune to this problem than ASIC, which seems blissfully unaware of the collateral damage caused by the Future of Financial Advice reforms in driving further consolidation and vertical integration in the industry.

The worry is that concentrated ownership of financial planner dealer groups, fund managers and investment platforms will exacerbate the already serious conflicts of interest in the industry.

"Vertical integration and conflicts of interest are like a stealth bomber that simply doesn't show up on their radar," he warned. Let's hope it is addressed in the Senate inquiry and upcoming inquiry into the financial system to be launched by treasurer-elect Joe Hockey.

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