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‘Same old same old’ on north Queensland. Or is it?

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The yawning gulf between the industry and Federal Government over the north Queensland insurance affordability issue was the elephant in the room at the Insurance Council of Australia’s annual Regulatory Update conference in Sydney on Friday.

But while there’s no sign of a rethink of what is one of the Government’s less sensible policies, there are nevertheless some indications the politicians are stepping back from the edge.

The new Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg gave the keynote address to the industry gathering, and many wondered if the Liberal Party’s rising star might present some new perspectives on the north Queensland issue.

His speech was, as one industry insider lamented later, “the same old same old”.

And yet not entirely.

There was a concessionary note in Mr Frydenberg’s speech that hasn’t been evident in the “take it or leave it” manner of Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

Mr Frydenberg called for greater consultation and mutual support, offering the softer, less confrontational tone now being tried (with varying levels of success) by the Abbott Government.

ICA President Andy Cornish set the scene, opening the conference with a solid rendering of how $2.4 billion in post-disaster money has been pumped into north Queensland by the industry.

While that should have given Mr Frydenberg pause for thought, he didn’t shift a centimetre from his prepared speech, which had been given to a mainstream newspaper the day before anyway.

His comments on the north Queensland insurance affordability issue started on familiar ground, stating it’s a “critical issue for the Abbott Government”, and the industry “has an important role to play designing more flexible products to better meet the needs of north Queenslanders”. Yadda yadda.

He says the imposition of a comparison website and reopening the market to unauthorised foreign insurers (UFIs) have been forced by an 80% climb in home and contents premiums in the eight years to 2012/13. In the same period premiums grew 45% in Brisbane and 12% in Sydney and Melbourne. Mr Cornish’s payout figures didn’t feature in the minister’s reckoning.

But while all the usual hardline action stuff was in his speech, the minister also admitted he has heard the industry’s misgivings about the initiatives. That’s a change.

Mr Frydenberg says the comparison website is due to be launched before the end of the month. It will take time to see whether it turns out to be, as widely expected everywhere except Canberra, an expensive farce.

But no deadline has yet been announced for allowing UFIs back into the market, and a new degree of caution appears to be tempering the gung-ho approach of the past few months.

The minister says he is “very conscious of the potential risks that could arise from this policy if not properly implemented, and will consult carefully with the industry”. And he will “consult the industry on any necessary changes that may be required to implement this measure”.

Consultation hasn’t been a big thing with this Government, so these words indicate a more positive, cautious direction is being tried. Although when one consults over what is at heart a silly policy, the old saying about putting lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

Mr Frydenberg also noted the need for mitigation measures to be taken at the personal, business and government level, saying governments and insurers should work together to help north Queensland consumers manage and reduce risk.

The Government will have more to say about mitigation when the Productivity Commission’s report into natural disaster funding is tabled in Parliament mid-year, and in the meantime Mr Frydenberg has called on the new Queensland Government to deal with the fact that high premiums equate to high state stamp duties.

It remains to be seen whether the minister’s toning-down of the fighting words that up to now have dominated the north Queensland affordability debate really means anything.

At best the industry can hope the UFIs initiative might be made to disappear as more reasonable heads come to realise it’s simply bad policy.

That’s probably too much to ask. But at least there’s a sense that Canberra is beginning to listen and think.