Champion of super still has plenty to sort

ELOISE GIBSON
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2012

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Diana Crossan is not an easy woman to divert.

When her longtime partner, Neale, refused to take her to movie The Intouchables, she waited until he went away and nobbled a mate. It turned out the office had arranged a private screening for her final Christmas party in 10 years as retirement commissioner.

Neale was in on it. "I thought, 'Why won't you take me, you mean old bugger!' "

She can say "bugger" now because she finishes in January, but she probably would have anyway.

Her tenure as the country's financial literacy champion has been marked by a mixture of strategic decorum and occasional disarming bluntness.

Just last month, she chastised banks for taking on KiwiSaver customers but failing to educate them about managed funds. She was at a savings conference peppered with, ahem, bankers.

Yet when she said she was stepping down, banks were among the first to sing her praises.

Does she trust the financial sector more or less than she did 10 years ago?

She pauses. "I'm probably more selective."

In other words, she now knows who to trust.

Our national savings ethic is not as appalling as the financial industry would have us believe, she says.

The sector's push for compulsory KiwiSaver and higher personal contributions is "predicated on self-interest".

After adjusting for their 25 per cent pay advantage, it is difficult to tell whether the average Australian is any better off from paying compulsory superannuation.

"We know who made the money in Australia - the finance sector. We know a lot of people in Australia go into retirement in debt."

A former probation officer raised in a small town in the South Island, Crossan was a sandwich-in-the-office kind of a woman when she first started as commissioner.

The first commissioner, her predecessor, was a tax accountant who had no public profile. That was never going to be her. Financial literacy is only about one-eighth of what we need, she says, after a diversified market, good regulation and a trusted and trustworthy financial sector.

One of her first speeches, at a ritzy lunch for the savings industry, was about the need to build trust in financial services. Cue furious, stony silence from the floor.

"I'll never forget it. It was a knife-and-fork lunch, which I'd never been used to before.

"It was very posh and served by some young women. When I did my speech, they were so angry."

Two people approached her at the break and said they agreed with her. "I thought, ‘You wuss. Why didn't you say that in the first place?' "

This was in 2004, before the finance company collapses made winning back trust an industry touchstone.

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"They didn't realise it was going down the gurgler. Of course, as it started to melt, they said, ‘This is an issue'."

Crossan, the child of teachers, calls the global financial crisis a "teachable moment" for New Zealanders.

Thanks partly to the commission and its user-friendly money website, sorted.org.nz, people are getting better at repaying credit on time and living within their means, but Crossan fears some of the biggest lessons remain unlearned.

She has heard that banks are offering 100 per cent mortgages, or higher, again.

"What are they doing to make sure the people who are doing that can afford it long term? I thought we got away from this when it happened last time."

The shrinking reach of home ownership is a retirement income issue, but she would prefer to see the Government explore building in Auckland, low-interest loans or expanding KiwiSaver hand-ups than making renting more retiree-friendly.

Renting in retirement might be more appealing in countries with warmer rentals, lifelong contracts and other tenant protections, but it's almost too hard to create that here now, she says.

"That would be a massive cultural change. If I was the prime minister, I'd be focusing on finding ways of helping people get into their own homes."

More than almost anyone, she is credited with sparking widespread conversations about what seems like an obvious fiscal idea - that when today's young workers retire, they might not be able to rely on New Zealand Superannuation to the extent of the generations before them.

She has clanged the alarm bell in the face of blank-faced denials from the Government, which maintains it will tweak nothing about the current entitlements.

It's been "energy sapping", she says, debating issues that no-one particularly wanted to talk about.

"I won't miss constantly having to get up and find ways of getting the point across. It isn't easy, getting the Government to listen - the whole issue of being all influence and no power."

Had she wanted to, "I could stay at home one week and nobody would notice. It's one of those jobs where you have to get yourself out there."

Now, for the first time in years, she can attend events and not press the flesh, even though "all the people I'd want to influence are there".

Crossan hasn't had time to work through the emails and letters suggesting new jobs and opportunities. Although she is 63, retiring would be unthinkable, but the kind of work she wants - a full-time, strategic role at a national level - does not simply land in your inbox, she says.

She has been offered two boards, one of which she will probably take.

The Russians want her to help them start a financial literacy programme, after the success of sorted.org.nz.

But the main bread-and-butter role is yet to be determined. Crunch day will arrive on February 5.

In the diary, where there would usually be a million things, there is nothing. Maybe she will visit a friend, she says. In the meantime, there is a holiday and a movie screening. The office will be seeing The Hobbit.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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