Insurers call for planning reform to curb rising premiums

Some of the country’s largest insurance companies have admitted making mistakes in their response to the disastrous floods of two years ago but warned premiums would continue to rise over the long term unless planning laws are improved.

Insurance Australia Group, Suncorp, Youi and the Insurance Council of Australia on Monday appeared before a federal parliamentary inquiry into insurers’ responses to the 2022 east coast flooding disaster – the most expensive insurance event in the nation’s history with $7.4 billion in claims.

Flooding in Forbes NSW in November 2022. Record floods destroyed crops and wiped out roads critical for harvest.
Flooding in Forbes NSW in November 2022. Record floods destroyed crops and wiped out roads critical for harvest.Credit: Nick Moir

The council’s chief executive, Andrew Hall, pleaded for reforms to planning laws that are “unnecessarily worsening” the impact of extreme weather events and called on state and territory governments to abolish “unfair taxes” on insurance which he says are increasing premiums.

“Wherever you live in Australia, whether you’re directly exposed to extreme weather impacts or not, premiums are rising because of the escalating costs of natural disasters … inflation driving up building and vehicle repair costs and the increasing cost of capital for insurance,” Hall said.

“Demand for insurance is outstripping supply and these pressures are creating a growing protection gap.”

IAG executive general manager Luke Gallagher said governments and industry need to respond to the changing nature of climate disasters. “Unfortunately, these large events – we’re likely to see increased frequency and severity of them going forward,” Gallagher said. “We have a number of communities in Australia that are built in places [that are] going to be subject to this increased frequency and severity.”

The inquiry is examining issues such as affordability, the resolution of insurance claims and whether planning controls are affecting the ability to insure parts of the country.

The cost of insurance is forcing many people to either dump their coverage or underinsure their assets, according to evidence presented to the inquiry. Insurance prices surged 16.2 per cent in the year to December, last week’s inflation data showed.

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A report commissioned by consumer group CHOICE, the Climate Council and Financial Counselling Australia released in August, after the inquiry’s terms of reference were released, showed the cost of insurance is forcing many people to either dump their coverage or underinsure their assets.

The ICA said there were more than 300,000 insurance claims by households impacted by the south-east Queensland and northern NSW floods of February and March 2022; the Hunter and Greater Sydney floods of July 2022; Victorian, NSW and Tasmanian floods of October 2022; and Central West NSW floods of November and December 2022.

Clancy and Sally Watts watched the water approach as floodwaters approached their peak near Kerang in Victoria’s north in October 2022.
Clancy and Sally Watts watched the water approach as floodwaters approached their peak near Kerang in Victoria’s north in October 2022. Credit: Eddie Jim

Even before the first major floods hit south-east Queensland and NSW, there were more than 85,000 open insurance claims driven by six declared insurance events in 2021, highlighting the unprecedented pressure on the industry.

IAG and Suncorp provided evidence about 3000 claims that remained unresolved. They apologised to those customers after the industry was last week pilloried during the inquiry’s hearings by consumer advocacy groups for “appalling behaviour” against households affected by floods.

“I would be the first to admit there are areas of deficiency that have been identified,” Suncorp chief executive Steve Johnston said. “We can always talk about the unprecedented nature of these events, but the real reality of it is in a changing climate we’re going to see more of them … We should be doing better than we had.”

Financial Rights Legal Centre senior policy and communications officer Julia Davis told the inquiry they had “seen example, after example of sometimes appalling behaviour, really rude, aggressive, bullying behaviour, where third parties come to a person’s house and either accuse them of letting their house fall into disrepair or accuse them of insurance fraud, basically”.

The insurers said nationwide labour and materials shortages were also exacerbating the impacts of an “unprecedented” flooding disaster and stymying rebuilding efforts.

Johnston told the inquiry poor local government planning was the “most fundamental driver” of the complexity of claims his group had dealt with and said he had visited a house that had been flooded and rebuilt four times with no change to the design.

Insurers have expressed frustration that current views on “acceptable risk” in planning don’t adequately factor in natural disasters, leaving some communities with “really unacceptable financial outcomes”.

RACQ Group and Allianz will appear before the inquiry on Friday.

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