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Building ignorance: politicians fail to grasp insurance (again)

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Politicians love pointing the finger at insurers when the proverbial hits the fan – and the current construction industry crisis is no exception.

Several years after the threat posed by combustible cladding and other building defects first became obvious, state governments have finally reacted – not to the root cause of the problem, but because insurers have walked away from, or have introduced exclusions to, professional indemnity cover for surveyors and certifiers.

Fears that the construction industry could grind to a shuddering halt have sparked promises of a long-called-for national approach.

But rather than acknowledging the insurance industry’s injection of some urgency into a potentially life-or-death situation, politicians have reverted to their tedious standard attitude – making insurers the bad guys.

By the thinking of Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews, for example, the construction industry crisis should be allowed to continue, with funding provided by the insurance industry.

As she put it so colourfully last week: “They've pocketed the premiums while they thought it was low risk. But when the risk profile changes they’ve walked away – it’s inexcusable.”

It’s definitely inexcusable for a minister overseeing an important portfolio to spout such ill-informed nonsense. understands that following “discussions” with the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA), the minister has since backed away from using such language again.

But in terms of reinforcing lazy stereotypes, the damage was done.

The truth? The professional indemnity insurance market for building surveyors and certifiers has been losing money for a decade, with more than $3.40 paid in claims for every dollar collected in premium.

So why should commercial insurance companies continue to write loss-making business? And instead of spouting populist rubbish, why wasn’t Ms Andrews better informed by her staff before speaking?

It makes no sense to blame insurers at the end of the risk management chain – the “canaries in the coalmine” whose commercially driven decisions have revealed an ugly sore that has been left to fester for far too long.

As ICA has said, “insurers didn't build those buildings, insurers didn’t certify them”.

But they are still being roped into the “blame game”, and there are other examples.

The Victorian Cladding Taskforce’s final report says the state government should seek to offset the costs of the recently announced rectification program from “wrongdoers” – and insurers should also contribute.

In a fulsome display of scrambled logic and a knowledge vacuum on the basic workings of insurance, the report argues that if a government pays for rectification, insurers receive a “significant windfall gain”.

“It is therefore reasonable for them to make a substantial contribution towards the costs of rectification.”

What “significant windfall” is that exactly?

ICA reminds us that insurers pay claims when policies respond – but any other forced “contributions” would simply push premiums up.

The cost of rectification and compensation “should be borne by the sector responsible for the issues”, it says.

There is no doubt the insurance industry was encouraged by promises of a national approach coming out of last Thursday’s Building Ministers’ Forum.

But politicians have been sniping at the insurance industry for so long the ministers still couldn’t resist once again raising that old prejudiced and undermining belief that insurers spend most of their time avoiding difficult risks and claims.

One pointed sentence within the communique that followed the meeting says: “The building ministers called on insurers to meet their existing obligations and lift their exclusions on professional indemnity insurance following this strong action by states and territories.”

Well, two points from that little barb, ministers. Firstly, insurers have met and are continuing to meet all their “existing obligations” – why would you think otherwise?

Secondly, you talk about taking “strong action”, but so far “talk” is all you’ve done.

“Insurers can’t change risk assessments purely based on promises – that would be irresponsible,” ICA spokesman Campbell Fuller told

“Insurers need to see action, and see it having a real impact, before they can properly reassess risk and return to the market.”

In all likelihood the current situation will remain for some time – probably years – while insurers wait for government promises to eventuate, and then assess the results.

So once they move on from futile sniping, the ministers’ action plan is clear: Tackle the root causes of the problem – which have nothing to do with insurance.

And do it quickly.