Eye on the Ball

By Chris Sheedy | Vol: 38 Issue: 1 | Mar 2015
John Price

As John Price drove around flood-ravaged areas of Queensland and Victoria in 2012, stopping at the houses and properties of more than 1,500 people suffering at the hand of nature, he learned a great deal about humility, humanity and the insurance industry. 

As Lead Ombudsman, General Insurance, within the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), John fielded numerous complaints about people’s dealings with their insurance companies, mainly over perceived levels of cover. His job was to interview the claimants – most often in the company of a representative from the insurance company – and hear their stories. 

“We found with the Queensland floods and the Victorian floods a tremendous resilience among people in the community. It was amazing,” recalls John. “By sitting down and speaking with these people, we were able to resolve a significant number of disputes. These people were not bitter for the most part; they just wanted the opportunity to be heard. Most people, when offered the chance to conciliate their disputes with their insurer, were most appreciative of their insurer’s willingness to work with them."

John says the insurance industry received a “real shake-up” as a result of the Queensland and Victoria floods. 

“The industry worked very hard with the government and consumer groups to resolve things in a proactive rather than reactive manner,” he explains. “Issues such as the importance of mitigation to ensure the affordability of insurance were championed by the industry. I think those solutions are very strong, and I think the industry has worked very well in doing that.” 

The next challenges for the industry, says John, will be responding to David Murray’s Financial System Inquiry and moving into a new age in which consumers are demanding more and clearer information. “I think that we do have an issue with the clarity of policy wording,” he says. “People are not always sure that they are getting what they thought they were getting.” 

KEEN TO HELP 

The visits to flood victims were a powerful lesson for everybody involved. They were a lesson about the power of communication and the benefit of mutual respect. John firmly believes that talking with people on the same level, rather than speaking down to them or  ignoring their pleas, leads to a situation in which most matters can be resolved.

It is a lesson he learned while growing up in Spotswood, at the time a working-class neighbourhood in Melbourne’s west. As he watched the West Gate Bridge being built, young John attended state schools for his primary and secondary years. His father was a boilermaker, fitter and turner; his mother worked at Australian Glass Manufacturers – “so it was very mucha working-class family,” he says.

Choosing to go to university and study law, John became involved with the Western Suburbs Legal Service.

“It was one of the very early, community-based legal services,” he says. “I would go along on some Tuesday nights and try to help people out, or at least give them some direction on where they might be able to go for help. I was always more comfortable trying to assist individuals than trying to assist organisations.”

That urge to help people, to use the law for creative and positive purposes, continued into his career as a lawyer.

This began with Lander & Rogers  Lawyers and continued for a 26-year period with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, including 20 years as a partner heading up the personal insurance division of the business.

“I am a lawyer by training and, apart from having a good knowledge of the insurance industry, I bring a lawyer’s practical approach to a lot of things,” says John. “I am a long-term advocate of alternative dispute resolution. I am interested in the use of mediation and early conferencing to try to resolve matters, and I think I bring that to my current role as Lead Ombudsman. 

“I think this is a fairer way of resolving a matter in a very expedient and timely manner. The FOS process, as an inquisitorial system, has a lot of advantages over the adversarial system that you find in court. It allows people to come to an organisation like ours and have the matter resolved without the significant costs involved in litigation. It gives people access to justice and an opportunity to be heard.” 

ON AND OFF THE PITCH 

This sense of fairness and finding solutions permeates everything John does, including in his other major roles as a Code of Conduct Commissioner for Cricket Australia and a Tribunal Commissioner with Cricket Victoria. If a player is charged with a serious offence or chooses to reject a match referee’s decision, John is called in. 

“It puts you in a position where you are meeting people who are larger than life,” he says. “You can see that they are very driven people, and that is why they have succeeded at the very highest level of the sport.” 

Cricket is close to John’s heart – from the ages of 16 to 45, he played for a local Melbourne cricket club. He modestly, and rather hilariously, describes himself as the batting equivalent of Jim Higgs (an Australian leg-spinner, who was also a terrible batsman) and the bowling equivalent of Bill Lawry (a former legendary opening batsman for Australia, who bowled fewer than three overs in his Test career, for good reason). 

John argues that team sport is of great importance to children as they develop into adults, and indeed for adults themselves, as it teaches vital lessons and promotes strong ideals. 

“I am a life member of the cricket club that I was involved with, and I still drop in regularly to see them,” he says. “I coached my son at one stage, and he made some fabulous friends from cricket. I am also involved in a lacrosse club. The people I meet in these environments come from all walks of life. They come from all social and economic levels. It is wonderful, because in this environment, everybody is equal. It is a lot of fun.” 

So, what happens when he is asked to manage a case presented against high-profile professional cricketers? Do his tried-and-tested methods of mediation pay dividends? 

“At the end of the day, they understand what the process is and they understand the role that they have, and that is as a role model,” says John. “Perhaps they didn’t intend to become a role model, but that is part and parcel of the position that they have, as elite cricketers. I think that, in the end, they do understand the seriousness of some of the offences that occur.” 

WORLD CUP PICKS 

Speaking of elite cricketers, John says that while he is supporting the Australian team in the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup, the players he’ll be keeping an eye on come from all around the globe. 

“As well as some of the exciting Australian players, I think it will be absolutely fabulous to see the New Zealanders – I think Kane Williamson will be the player to watch there,” he enthuses. And I love the batting strength of the Indian side. Virat Kohli is wonderful to watch – he is probably my favourite player. I think he is a strong and aggressive player who can turn that side around, over time. 

“There is some criticism levelled at the Australian side for being overly aggressive, but I think they just play a hard game and I think you need to play that way to succeed.” 

Play hard but always fair. It could be the catchcry for John’s philosophy on life. After decades of dispute resolution and 10 years as an insurance ombudsman, he has never lost hope or trust in the individual’s ability to find solutions during times of difficulty. 

“I think, fundamentally, people are honest and decent and are willing to work to resolve matters,” he says. “You will always have some people who are difficult; that is the nature of human beings. But in nearly every instance, if you speak to people fairly, then they will treat you fairly in return.” 


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