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Whitsundays face rising insurance costs as cyclone season nears, but ACCC may have solutions

By Tobi Loftus, Friday January 15, 2021 - 07:26 EDT
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Whitsundays Mayor Andrew Wilcox says premiums went "through the roof" after Cyclone Debbie hit. - ABC

North Queensland residents are divided on how best to respond to rising insurance costs as the region enters cyclone season.

Margaret Shaw knows firsthand the impact rising insurance costs have on home owners and residents across the Whitsundays.

The former Airlie Beach resident was the treasurer of the body corporate of a complex of 25 apartments.

"In 2011 after Cyclone Yasi, which was way north of the Whitsundays, strata insurance went from $25,000 for 25 apartments to $81,000," the insurance reform advocate said.

"The treasurer at the time couldn't cope, so I took over.

"When Cyclone Debbie hit [in 2017] ? premiums had gone up to $100,000 for 25 apartments."

Strata insurance, which is mandatory in Queensland, covers the common areas of properties such as apartment buildings and unit complexes.

Soon after Cyclone Debbie, Ms Shaw decided she had had enough and moved to Townsville.

"I couldn't see it getting any better whatsoever," she said.

"We took a deep breath and sold the apartment ? for $60,000 less than what we were told it was worth."

Ms Shaw wasn't alone in her experience.

Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor Andrew Willcox said he had heard for years about residents and businesses not being able to afford various insurance types, including strata, after Cyclone Debbie as premiums had "gone through the roof".

He said it was a "nightmare" for locals.

"We now have some people who are uninsured because they simply cannot afford to pay the premium," he said.

"If we do have a major event and you aren't insured, I don't know how the businesses will survive or fix their businesses up."

Report shows soaring costs

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) .

The report found the rising cost of insurance forced 20 per cent of people in northern Australia to live without it ? compared to 11 per cent across the rest of the country.

In the Whitsundays, the report found premiums for home and contents insurance were already high prior to Cyclone Debbie, with the average on Hamilton Island being $10,765 in 2015-16.

This had risen to an average of $15,575 in 2018-19, a 44.7 per cent increase.

The report found the average strata insurance premium across the Cyclone Debbie areas jumped almost 145 per cent between 2008-09 and 2018-19, and it was likely that at least some strata complexes in the area might be uninsured.

The report made 38 recommendations, including calling on state governments to abolish stamp duty on home insurance.

It also recommended the Federal Government mandate standard cover and establish a price-comparison website.

"We know that there are real reasons for more expensive insurance premiums in northern Australia," ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said.

"The risk of extreme weather is higher and it can be costly for insurers to service these regions.

"However, different insurers can quote vastly different premiums for the same property. While many consumers could save by switching, it is harder than it should be for consumers to shop around."

Ms Shaw said while she believed the 38 recommendations were worthwhile and would make insurance more transparent, she was concerned they would not lower premiums.

Calls for reinsurance pool

Dawson MP George Christensen said he thought the recommendations did not go far enough and was disappointed that the concept of a government reinsurance pool was not among the recommendations.

A reinsurance pool seeks to provide insurance for types of risks where it is not readily available.

"We have a reinsurance pool already for terrorism risk ? which came about after the September 11 attacks when all commercial insurance for terrorism risk vanished overnight," he said.

The Government backbencher said he had spoken with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg about the idea of introducing a reinsurance pool.

Mr Willcox and Ms Shaw said they both also backed the introduction of a reinsurance pool for natural disasters.

Ms Rickard, however, said the ACCC did not think a reinsurance pool was the appropriate solution for northern Australia.

"We do not believe that ? reinsurance pools can lower premiums without the government subsidising the insurer in some way," she said.

"These measures also can't be targeted to those consumers most in need, and so are more costly."

North Queensland-based Labor senator Nita Green said she sided with the report in regards to reinsurance pools.

"It seems a bit strange that George Christensen is unwilling to accept this," she said.

"[The Government has] been talking about it for a long time, but they haven't taken any steps to introduce something, to provide some funding to see if it is perhaps a viable option."

Senator Green said Labor was going through the report and had already announced support for 27 of the recommendations.

"[They were] made in previous inquiries ? and have been in front of Cabinet for over a year," she said.

"Labor want them acted on."


© ABC 2021

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