Stephen Jones speaking earlier this year.

“This area of policy is particularly fraught”, Stephen Jones concluded in his historic address in Parliament House’s main committee room last week as he delivered the government’s full final response to the Quality of Advice Review.

On that – if nothing else – the dozens of stakeholders in the exhausting and contentious QAR consultation process can surely agree.

Over two years, Labor (first in opposition and then in government) has attempted to take on one of the nation’s pressing policy problems.

In a collision of potentially harmful circumstances, millions of Baby Boomers are set to retire precisely as two decades’ worth of financial regulation had resulted in the median price of financial advice skyrocketing out of reach for all but the wealthiest households.

These waves of government intervention – from the Ripoll Report to FoFA, to the education and ethics reforms, to the climactic Hayne royal commission – were arguably a necessary response to the grievous harm committed upon customers by their trusted financial service providers. Conflicted models and perverse incentives in financial advice were a large part of the problem.

But equally, a scenario in which just 10 per cent of the population can afford professional advice, despite all the complexities emanating from our bizarre housing market and unique compulsory superannuation system, is simply not up to scratch. And the fact that it is the remaining 90 per cent who probably need help most presents an additional Catch-22.

For listening to the mostly small business owners struggling to keep up with the layers of often duplicated red tape, and for acknowledging some elements of those reforms were now causing more harm than good, the Labor Party deserves some credit.

This is especially so considering most (but not all) of those rules were devised and implemented on its watch, and the party is hardly known for business-friendly deregulation. Moreover, the review’s terms of reference and chair, Allens partner Michelle Levy, were set by its opponents in the Morrison government and said to be close to the banks. It might have been a lot easier politically to just pull the pin on it when elected in May 2022.

In committing to fixing the problem during the election campaign, Jones was wading into an incredibly thorny challenge: how to alleviate the burden on providers and reduce the cost to consumers without opening the door to the misdeeds of the past (and sacrificing his political career in the process).

Cloudy consensus

The daily reality of that process has been an almost endless succession of meetings, speeches, hearings and consultations. While he received a much more polite reception than when engaging in the retail politics of shopping malls and RSL clubs, dealing regularly with industry associations and lobbyists is precarious in its own way.

While the so-called Joint Associations Working Group attempted to present some facade of consensus, truthfully the industry’s many warring factions and vested interests often saw things quite differently. It’s telling that less than 18 months after collectively announcing the group, most of its members have reverted to separate, individual press releases.

Mostly the industry associations are good-faith participants in the process. As the providers of these services, their members have every right to try to influence public policy, and their staff are often more technically proficient in the relevant area of the law than the Treasury boffins tasked with possibly amending it.

But their slick submissions and sensible-sounding suggestions cannot be separated from their monetary incentives. Primarily their job is to help shape law that is commercially advantageous to their members. There’s nothing wrong with that per se (although they could sometimes be more transparent about the motivation), but it invariably adds to the complexity of decisions facing the minister.