Recent Royal Commission has shown Australians how rotten the country’s financial advice sector is.

Australians have learned over the past few weeks that our A$2.6 trillion (NZ$2.84 trillion) of retirement savings has been left in the hands of the dishonest and the incompetent.

And the corporate policeman has done nothing to stop it.

The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, to use its full title, has revealed just how rotten the financial advice sector in Australia really is.

Take the case of "celebrity" financial planner Sam Henderson and his client Donna McKenna.


Henderson gave deeply flawed superannuation advice to McKenna. He told her to withdraw the funds from her public service super fund and put it into a fund to be managed by Henderson's firm.

It would have generated many thousands of dollars of fees for Henderson's firm, but would also have cost McKenna $500,000 for withdrawing early from her public service super fund.

Thankfully, McKenna is a Fair Work Commissioner – essentially a judge – so she knew her way around complex documents and spotted that she would be much worse off if she accepted Henderson's advice.

Even after being told in no uncertain terms that withdrawing from the public sector super fund early would cost half a million dollars, Henderson's firm still formally advised McKenna to do so.

Henderson, who made regular media appearances as an investment expert, also claimed to have a Master's of Commerce degree, when in fact he did not.

It gets worse. It emerged in the Royal Commission hearings that an employee of Henderson's had repeatedly impersonated McKenna and called her super fund to get details about her finances.

As soon as the industry body, the Financial Planning Association, heard about the misconduct in the leadup to the Royal Commission, it drummed its celebrity member out of the organisation.

Only kidding! What the FPA in fact did was to write to the Royal Commission asking to keep Henderson's name secret, presumably so potential clients wouldn't be aware of his shoddy service.


This speaks of an industry where corrupt behaviour and incompetence are par for the course, not the exception, and where they are tolerated.

In fact, McKenna lodged a formal complaint about her treatment with the Financial Planning Association but so far hasn't made any progress in having Henderson brought to account.

The judge and lawyer told the Royal Commission: "If someone with my education and occupational background hits a wall when you engage proper disciplinary processes ... what hope would someone who doesn't have that occupational background and skills, what hope would they have?"

So if the industry can't regulate and police itself, it's up to the government.

But when we look at the record of the Australian Securities & Investments Commission – whose job it is to protect consumers from dodgy financial practices – things aren't any better.

ASIC has launched just one criminal prosecution of a holder of an Australian Financial Services Licence and six civil actions in the past decade.

That ASIC has managed such a tiny number of prosecutions in an industry so rife with spivs and crooks is risible.

Financial planners have a duty to provide advice that is in their client's best interests not in their own best interests.

One would have thought this was a basic tenet of the industry, but the government actually had to write it into the law a few years ago because so few planners followed this fundamental principle.

The Royal Commission heard ASIC had not pursued a single civil case for breach of the "best interests" duty over the last five years.

The case of Sam Henderson and Donna McKenna isn't a one-off and it isn't just individual planners.

The Commission heard, for instance, that the employees of a Commonwealth Bank subsidiary were charging clients for financial advice after they had died with one planner charging a dead customer almost $1000 a year for advice for more than a decade.

Investment giant AMP also charged clients fees for services it didn't provide and then compounded the error by repeatedly lying to the regulator.

The financial planning industry portrays itself as a profession but the Royal Commission heard only a fraction of financial planners are qualified - just 35 per cent have a bachelor's degree or higher. In reality, the majority are people who just happen to be selling financial advice.

They could just as easily be selling used cars or photocopiers or aluminium windows. Unfortunately, when people trust their retirement to these planners, they are risking far more than wasting a few thousand dollars on a clapped out old motorcar.

One other group of people also need to be held accountable for this debacle.

Seats on the board of one of the Big Four banks or a company like AMP and the considerable directors fees that go with them are handed out to a small group of Australia's most respected business people.

Much of the misconduct took place under the stewardship of these corporate elders, who have also failed savers and their shareholders.