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One on one with…Deborah Ralston

Deborah Ralston

Deborah Ralston was appointed as the new SMSF Association chair at the industry body’s national conference in February. She discusses the role with Darin Tyson-Chan and highlights the importance of getting the best outcome for members under the proposed FASEA education rules and the game-changing nature of the new think tank with the ATO.

When you joined the SMSF Association board in 2016 was it with a view to becoming chair at some point?

Not on my part at the time, but apparently others might have had that in mind. I saw it as a great opportunity to engage with an association I’ve had a lot of respect for over time. As a superannuation researcher I had been engaged with them on a number of projects and I’d been really impressed with the level of their advocacy. I like the sector itself because I think there is a lot of pride among SMSF trustees that they are responsible for their own future in retirement and it has a really nice philosophy.

How did your appointment to the board come about?

I was invited by [former chief executive] Andrea Slattery and the chair to join the board, but it was some time after the initial request before I took up the offer. I had engaged with them on research matters and we’d got to know each other a little that way. I think the board had been looking to become more strategic in their approach. It’s very important to have practitioners on the board to allow it to be really in touch with the membership and their issues, but also they were looking to make a couple of appointments at a higher level too to take a more strategic approach.

What have your areas of focus been to date?

I contribute to the policy committee, which is probably where I have a keen interest. We’ve just made the appointment of Jeremy Cooper to the policy committee as well as Bernie Ripoll and it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to discuss issues with people of that calibre and to get a really strong feeling for where the SMSF sector sits within the broader financial services spectrum. So we know exactly what the issues are and also have a good feeling for how at a political level some of our issues might be perceived.

As the new chair, have you identified any areas that need immediate attention?

This current controversy about the cash return on franking credits has been occupying quite a lot of our thinking. We’ve also been thinking a lot about issues like LRBAs (limited recourse borrowing arrangements) and when they should be used in SMSFs. In the superannuation space there’s never a dull moment and it’s tremendous to work with the association on those aspects because they’ve got their hands on the statistics, they’re very much in touch with the grass roots of the organisation, so when we’re talking about these issues you’re really talking about the facts, which is a very nice change compared to how some of these issues are addressed in the public forum.

How was the handover process and did former chair Andrew Gale alert you to any outstanding matters?

It was a very good handover. Across several months I not only spoke with John Maroney but also with Andrew. There are many good things going on and I’m very keen to continue those good things. I guess the thing I’m taking particular interest in at the moment is the announcement from FASEA (Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority) about qualifications for professionals. I’ve been involved in running programs on financial advice so I’m very interested in getting a good outcome as per the objectives of the association, making sure that we’re really contributing to professionalism in the industry. So that’s something I feel that I can contribute to very directly on the education side. Policy, education and research are the areas I feel I can bring perhaps additional insights.

In a slightly different move, Robin Bowerman is staying on as vice-chair. How important has this been?

From my point of view it’s been wonderful. I’ve known Robin for nearly 10 years and he’s someone I’m very comfortable talking to, and I think because of his professional background his insights are tremendously useful and that provides the continuity. Not only is Robin there, but there are also several other ex-chairmen still on the board and they’re terrific too. The attraction of the group is that they’re all very committed to the purpose and no one has any ulterior motives of any kind.

What’s the members’ mood been about FASEA so far?

There was a lot of anxiety when we held the national conference in February, people were really concerned, and I give the organisation 10 out of 10 because I think it recognised that concern and has stepped up and delivered the broad outline of what is intended into the future probably faster than first planned. I think that’s been tremendous and the anxiety levels have been reduced across the membership as to what exactly it means for professionals. We haven’t engaged a lot on the subject yet because there are still some gaps we need to have filled in, particularly when it comes to things like recognised prior learning. So we’re just waiting to hear the next step on that because that will be really important for a lot of our members who have been very committed to their professional developments. We would just like to get a better feel for the full picture before we start conducting too much of a conversation there. I have taken the opportunity to email a few of our members to get a general feel of how it’s going with them and I’ve had a variety of responses. Some people are feeling quite relaxed, saying it’s far less onerous than they thought it would be for those with previous qualifications, but in a couple of pockets there is still some uncertainty. We will certainly be advocates for our people and the professional training they have already undertaken.

Have you identified any ways you can better serve your members?

That’s a really critical point and the member proposition is what I’m very much about and it’s an ongoing point of discussion. I think one of the things that will be very useful is the project we’re undertaking with the ATO. It’s really just taking SuperStream through to the SMSF sector, and what that will mean for both practitioners and trustees is they will be able to get much more accurate and timely information from the regulator and I think that will really be of great use across the sector. That project is really important and we’re engaging there with people who have the information platforms, such as Class and BGL, so getting that collaborative work going is something the association is ideally placed to do – to be the conduit between the regulator and the wider group of practitioners.

How important is it for the SMSF Association to formulate new trustee initiatives?

How I see it is that we really have a great opportunity to build the SMSF community and that means practitioners as well as trustees. There are many areas where there is a huge benefit to get those two groups together and to get them working more closely together. It has become a much more complex area of superannuation, particularly since the changes that occurred last year, and the need for learning and collaboration I guess is greater than it used to be. I think in terms of ensuring the association speaks not just on behalf of professionals but for the SMSF sector as a whole is very important.

Is there anything about SMSFs you would like to change?

I guess I’d like to change the perceptions of SMSFs. We know that less than 1 per cent of SMSFs have a balance of over $100 million, which is a bit of a legacy issue. I really dislike this view of SMSFs being some retirement savings vehicle for the elite. They are for hard-working, conscientious people who want to prepare for their own retirement. So if we do anything in this environment to change that perception, I think that would be a worthwhile thing to do. I only hope I can build on the good work already done by the association, but also get a bit more cut through in the media to make sure both sides of politics understand who they’re talking about when they discuss SMSFs. I think that would be a good contribution if I could help in that way.

What do you see as your biggest challenge as SMSF Association chair?

I think this will be a really important time for professional qualifications and making sure there is a really good professional education system that recognises the importance of the SMSF professional. That will be critical over the next two years. I guess there are also going to be policy issues going on as we see at the present time, so continuing to speak out for self-funded retirees and the importance of preparing for your own retirement is obviously going to be pretty critical with everything that is going on at the moment. Also the new project with the ATO will be really important to ensure we have a really efficient system with less friction between the regulator and the professionals, and by friction I mean inefficiencies in data collection and so on.

Ultimately what would you like to achieve in the new role?

I would hope to leave this role with the SMSF Association being on an even better footing than it is at the moment and hopefully I can contribute in the ways I’ve outlined to see that happen.

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