The FCVic COVID Industry Summit was held on Thursday, 22nd April 2021 at The Timberyard in Port Melbourne – a generous indoor/outdoor venue that could accommodate over 300 attendees, speakers and exhibitors in a COVID safe manner. We were fortunate to have the equally funny-and-steady hand of MC Justine Sless guiding us from start to finish – from coaxing everyone away from the coffee carts and into the venue at the start of the day, to saying all the thank yous and goodbyes at wrap time.
The day was focussed on industry responses to COVID – last year, the present and into the future – with panel sessions featuring representatives from the banking and energy sectors, the industry ombudsmen schemes, and culminating in a panel of financial counsellors to reflect on the day’s content.
We were honoured to have Wurundjeri Gunaikurnai Elder Ronald Ringo Terrick talk to us about his life, his connection to culture, and Welcome us to Country.
The Summit was officially opened with FCVic Chairperson Carly Baker introducing keynote speaker Ciara Sterling, CEO of Thriving Communities Partnership. Ciara delivered a passionate and personal speech that spoke to the positive outcomes of COVID – noting how barriers were dropped, people facing hardship were believed and supported more readily, and how sectors collaborated better than ever. Ciara implored for the current cross-sector collaboration aimed at those facing vulnerability and hardship to continue well past the pandemic.
The first panel session – ‘Banking’ – facilitated by Carolyn Bond saw representatives from CBA (Russell Hayman – Executive Manager, Financial Assist), NAB (Campbell Morrison – General Manager, Customer Assist), Westpac (Tasha Chye – Senior Manager, Community Advocacy & Priority Assist, Customer Assist), ANZ (Ed Tawill – Lead, Hardship COE, Customer Service Operations) and Bank Australia (David Catalano – Manager, Credit and Banking Integrity) gather to discuss their various approaches to COVID conditions, this year and last, and was framed as a follow up to FCVic’s Banking Industry Hardship Forum held in September 2020.
We heard the bank representatives’ overwhelming agreement with Ciara’s earlier comments that as barriers and red tape were dropped, and customers who were experiencing hardship were trusted and heard, everyone was better off. This message was delivered in tandem with the advice that banks want to hear from their customers experiencing vulnerability much earlier, as they have all been refining their toolkits and how they can help respond to these conditions. Further discussion points included a rise in scams – a comment that re-emerged later in the day in the ombudsmen panel – targeting clients in an increasingly sophisticated manner; the uptick in people proactively using gambling blocks; the banks’ attempts at internally identified and mitigated irresponsible lending practises (underpinned by the message that they want to know if these are identified by financial counsellors); and touched on disaster relief preparedness for the future.
Following a brisk morning tea, the second panel session was ‘Energy’. The session, with panellists Nerita Somers (AGL Project Lead, Energy Literacy), Andrea Linsemeier (Customer Affordability and Collections Optimisation Leader, EnergyAustralia) and Amy Childs (Momentum Energy, Managing Director), was facilitated by Ciara Sterling, who began by asking the panellists to reflect on change within the companies following the FCVic Energy Industry Hardship Forum. Three changes that seemed to be universal were increasing the volume and quality of translated materials for culturally and linguistically diverse clients; increasing staff levels so customers could be adequately listened to; and both actively identifying people who are eligible for the Utility Relief Grant Scheme (URGS) and assisting them to fill out the URG applications.
Similar to the banking panel, representatives urged clients to make contact sooner rather than later, and to engage in the hardship toolkits they have been developing and refining. The energy providers also spoke about the controls in place to enable them to quality manage collections agencies and hold them accountable.
Of interest to our Small Business Wellbeing financial counsellors was EnergyAustralia’s Rapid Business Assist, set up to assist businesses experiencing hardship. For those working with individuals or families, the AGL and Appliances Online partnership that conducts free home energy audits and may result in replacement of old, energy inefficient appliances with new ones was noted by many as a valuable resource. Ultimately, facilitator Ciara once again urged cross-sector collaboration to assist those experiencing vulnerability and discussed the forthcoming ‘One Stop, One Story Hub’, which should reduce the need of those experiencing hardship having to tell their story or circumstances time and time again.
Next up, Peter Gartlan led the third panel, ‘Industry Ombudsmen’, represented by Cynthia Gebert (Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria), Judi Jones (Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman) and David Locke (Chief Ombudsman, Australian Financial Complaints Authority). We heard that EWOV and AFCA both had a decline in complaints last year, which was due in large part to people and businesses being supported by government COVID supplement payments. Conversely, Judy advised that TIO complaints spiked early on as the population became far more reliant on phone and internet at home. Cynthia and Peter both expressed some anxiety about the impending ‘cliff’, as Jobkeeper and Jobseeker are rolled back, and David noted that AFCA have seen an uptick in demand since the start of March.
In talking about the good that has come out of COVID, AFCA reported a 40% decline in hardship complaints and a drop in credit card debt as people paid down arrears, and EWOV and TIO discussed their increasingly collaborative approach to helping clients with multi-sector issues.
Yet again, scams were a hot topic – AFCA have seen a “massive” increase in scams, TIO discussed and have issued multiple warnings about scams, and there was an audience question about who is responsible when scamming occurs. Echoing earlier messages, the advice was to contact the ombudsmen earlier and more often, with Judy advising that earlier contact with the ombudsmen can result in faster results and systemic changes to poor or outdated practises. EWOV noted that only 2% of their complaints came from financial counsellors and urged the audience to use them as a resource to free up financial counsellors’ time, in order to address the root causes of their clients’ issues.
The Summit concluded with a panel of four financial counsellors, moderated by Annette Devereaux (Team Leader & Financial Counsellor, Bethany Community Support), in which we heard from Heather Neilson (Senior Financial Counsellor, IPC Health), Evan Cheung (Financial Counsellor, Anglicare Victoria), Kylie McLoughlin (Financial Counsellor, Anglicare Victoria) and Jenny McGowan (Advocacy Support Worker/Financial Counsellor, Community Information & Support Cranbourne) as they reflected on the day’s panels.
The panellists agreed that many banks, utilities and other creditors have shown a better understanding and level of empathy towards people experiencing hardship since before the pandemic. However, it was noted that occasionally – despite best practises and frameworks – the staff who are at the entry-point to begin discussions aren’t well versed in a) what the hardship framework is for the company they represent, and b) what a financial counsellor is and does. This was underpinned by discussion of how to raise the professional profile of financial counsellors among banks, energy companies and others, to ensure the sector is being engaged with appropriately. There was some discourse around the future of financial counselling – the good points such as being able to work remotely with clients who would otherwise have a hard time attending in person appointments, as well as the downside of how digitally disadvantaged people have a harder time accessing services without internet, devices or technological literacy.
After the conclusion of the Summit, networking drinks were served outside before FCVic launched its history book: Financial Counselling in Victoria: the first 40 years. We were pleased to have many current and former financial counsellors, and other friends and supporters in attendance to celebrate the occasion. The book was launched by Louise Glanville, CEO Victoria Legal Aid, who gave a passionate speech about the history and legacy of financial counselling. The author of the book – FCVic’s own James Degenhardt – followed Louise’s speech with a few words about researching and writing the book and reflected on both the history and future of financial counselling in Victoria and across Australia.
It was a fantastic day and incredibly bolstering to see so many financial counsellors and sector partners gather in-person, as well as online, to look back on the highs and lows of the last year.