Straight shooter aiming for justice
This man of the people is standing up for the Aussie battler, reports Adele Ferguson.
For straight-talking Nationals senator John "Wacka" Williams, helping Aussie battlers is part of his DNA. After spending most of his life living and working on farms - as a shearer, a truck driver and pig farmer - he knows all too well about hard work and how difficult it can be to earn a crust ... and the importance of having a voice.
It is the reason he went into politics in 2007 and it is the key motivator behind his decision to go after the supermarket giants over their treatment of the dairy industry in the $1-a-litre milk price war, the push to stop foreigners buying Australian farms, the fee gougers in the insolvency industry, and white-collar crime.
His latest spat is with regulator the Australian Securities and Investments Commission over its slowness to act in the Commonwealth Bank financial planning scandal, which resulted in many retirees losing their life savings.
As revealed by BusinessDay last month, this was despite a group of whistleblowers informing ASIC of what was going on 16 months before it finally acted.
Williams said when he heard about the case and how the clients of financial planner Don Nguyen poured through the doors in a panic about their loss of income - some on walking frames, others with heart conditions, emphysema and dementia - and ASIC did nothing, he saw red.
Nguyen managed about $300 million in retirement savings from 1300 clients, created unauthorised investment accounts, overcharged fees, and put them into inappropriate investments, which destroyed most of their retirement savings. After he left the bank there was a cover-up that included falsification of documents in an apparent attempt to limit compensation amounts. ASIC banned him for seven years and the bank accepted a two-year enforceable undertaking.
All up, seven planners were banned from the bank and almost $50 million paid in compensation.
"It gets my blood boiling just thinking about it," Williams said. "It is why I called for a Senate inquiry because I think weak regulation is worse than no regulation, and I want to know why ASIC isn't doing a better job.
"Do they need more money? Do they have the right people running it? Is the structure right? Does the legislation need to change to give them more powers? I don't know the answers, but I will be asking the hard questions during the inquiry."
The inquiry has called for submissions from the public, with a cut-off date of October 17. Hearings and witnesses will be called in November and early 2014, followed by a set of recommendations by the end of March.
"I want this inquiry to be successful, so it is up to the public to send in submissions," Williams said. "I have heard a lot of complaints over the years about ASIC; now it is time for people to put it in a submission so we can properly examine the regulator's performance."
It has caused him also to question the role of vertical integration in the financial services sector and whether the new legislation goes far enough. "Years ago, robbers robbed with a pistol. Now, they rob with a Biro. I want a good active watchdog the public can feel confident about."
Williams says his overriding motive for going into politics was to make a difference. He won a scholarship to university, but after three months rang his mother and asked to come home to help run the farm, before later setting off to become a shearer, where he learnt a lot in the school of hard knocks. Anyone who knows him says he is a straight shooter, a man of the people, and whom has a heart as big as an ox - unless you are on the wrong side of him.
"I won't take crap. I'm here to do a job and that's to look after the battler. They work hard in their life to save money and get a nest egg together, and I want to make sure that is protected," he says. "When I think that we have $1.5 trillion in retirement savings and I see it can be taken away by crooked financial planners and we have a regulator looking on, I get hopping mad."
He might have left the toil and noise of the buzzing blades of his sheep shearing days, but the country is still inside him. When he is not in Canberra, bustling about, he can be found sitting on his tractor on his 160-hectare sheep and cattle farm 13 kilometres out of Inverell in NSW, where he lives with his wife, Nancy, who runs the local Bingara newspaper.
"When I didn't have a farm I used to go home and mow the lawn. I would put in ear plugs and shut everything out," he says. "It gives me a chance to think and get my ideas. There is nothing quite like driving out in the morning and seeing the ewes happy and content with plenty of feed, peace and quiet, and ready to lamb."
But it won't be long before he is back in Canberra either, playing a role in the new government if the Coalition wins, or raising his voice for those who can't be heard.
Submissions to the Senate inquiry can be made at https://senate.aph.gov .au/submissions.