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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 13385

Mr GEORGANAS (HindmarshSecond Deputy Speaker) (21:08): I was going to speak on energy and electricity prices tonight, and I will, but let me just reiterate what the member for Pearce said on this important issue. I had the opportunity this morning to speak on juvenile diabetes. I congratulate the member for Pearce for her tremendous work in this area. She will be sorely missed when she leaves, because this a very important area and she has continually kept it at the forefront of debates and discussions here in this place and has achieved great outcomes over the years while she has been advocating for diabetes.

Tonight I want to draw to the attention of the House the view of energy and electricity companies here in Australia that regulation of the electricity industry is weak and insufficient—a view that I have as well. Electricity companies are treating the existing electricity regulatory authorities with contempt. We all know that the price that the Australian public has been and is being charged for electricity has skyrocketed over the last four-or-so years. We all know that the system as it is has not kept a lid on power prices, in particular network charges, and that millions of energy consumers around the nation, millions of households, millions of families, have been put to the wall to continue to have this most basic resource in their homes. I would like the House to note that power companies themselves seem to think that tougher regulation of power prices is required to make power companies sit up and take notice.

Under South Australian law the Essential Services Commission of South Australia has legal responsibility for regulating the prices and price hikes charged by power companies. It sets the price of the standard electricity contract. The commission reached the conclusion a couple of months ago that wholesale prices were less than anticipated and that a consequent decrease in the price of the service contract would be in order. Around a quarter of South Australians are on a standard contract and would benefit from a price decrease of some $160 per year, a substantial amount for many households. Naturally many members of the public were very pleased with this announcement and this news. As I said earlier, they have been experiencing astronomical price rises and increases for several years.

The suggestion that power companies may charge less has been responded to with venom from within the electricity industry. We have had reports of the Energy Supply Association determining that the price decreases will simply not be passed on to consumers as has been determined by ESCOSA. According to a report in South Australia's Sunday Mail on 18 November, Origin said it 'does not accept the Commission has jurisdiction or power to vary the price'. AGL, another energy provider, argued that ESCOSA 'failed to have regard to the particular circumstances of the South Australian electricity industry'.

But, worse than entering into an argument over the calculations, far worse than debating the relevant South Australian act and its coverage, we have had the companies saying that they will find other ways of keeping prices high in spite of any regulated decrease in what companies can charge consumers. If companies need to adjust one price downwards, they have said that they will recoup that money through some other charge. This is what some of these companies have been quoted as saying in the newspaper. Here we have companies notionally subject to the law of the land which seem to feel perfectly in their rights to dodge the determinations of the regulator and charge whatever they like. This should be of grave concern to us all, not just in South Australia but in Australia overall. I am sure that not one of us approves of being held to ransom by the providers of the essential service of electricity. And I am sure that people from states other than South Australia, even people of the opposition Liberal persuasion and of other political persuasions, would feel similarly to those people in South Australia who are absolutely outraged by the absolute contempt shown by some players within this vital industry to their own customers, the arrogance and contempt that some show, holding us over a barrel.

So I expect that people of all Australian states and territories will demand that political leaders of any and all political persuasions band together at December's COAG meeting and unite to fix the regulatory regime of Australia's power and electricity system. Anything less would be contemptuous of the Australian people just as some power companies are being contemptuous toward the Australian people. The Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism recently observed the need for all levels of government to embrace key reforms to improve regulatory efficiency and to stimulate market competition and innovation. The minister noted that many of the key reforms that may ease future electricity price pressures are already well underway, such as improvements to network rules and a review of the appeals mechanism.

But we here and our state counterparts still need to bite the bullet and agree on further reforms that are required to drive greater efficiency in our energy system. We need to have all the players, including the state and territory governments, come to agree on the Australian Energy Regulator having the resources, the teeth and the ability to do the job that customers need it to do. We need all players, including state and territory governments, to agree to improve competition within the energy sector, enabling the creation of innovative products and market solutions on the basis of consumer preferences and demand.

If customers want to avoid the price spikes of peak demand and the outrageous power prices that apply to those very limited times, they should be able to. If customers want to avoid the higher rates that apply during certain times of the day and the week as a matter of course, they should be able to. If customers want to tailor their power usage at home to the occasional use of appliances—be it their washing machines, dishwashers or the like—they should be able to create a package of electricity usage that maximises the use of the cheapest power available throughout the day and throughout the week.

At the moment, consumers are largely in the dark regarding the tariffs that now apply. When retail electricity companies are able to provide incentives toward these kinds of packages so that customers can customise their power usage to minimise their electricity bills, our future and the future affordability of power in Australia will look relatively bright—very bright indeed. But all things should be taken within context. We have had a lot of activity from the energy retailers vying for customer business by going door to door to pressure-sell contracts and their product to customers. We have heard quite a bit about this happening around the country, in particular in households with residents in more senior years, especially in my electorate. While I have been calling for price protection through competition and innovation within the energy sector, we also need consumer protection from pressure-selling and unwanted approaches and unpalatable contracts. Nothing is more annoying to potential customers than to have a salesperson lobbing up at your door at any time of the day, expecting you to drop everything and listen to their pitch so they can sell you their electricity product.

As you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I introduced a private member's bill, the Do Not Knock Register Bill, into this place earlier this year, but I was very pleased to hear of the court upholding the Labor government's Australian Consumer Law in the context that I am speaking of. It ruled that any salesperson who knocked on the door of a household with a 'Do not knock' sticker readily visible on the door was risking a very substantial penalty, and we saw two court cases where two companies were fined heavily for doing just that. People have protection from the disruption of random sales pitches through the sticker on their front door, but we still need retail companies to create the means for customers to access packages which are more creative and more rewarding than they currently are, and we need those packages to be available for scrutiny and detailed consideration.

We still have a very long way to go in this basic, fundamental and elementary area of our domestic economy. This suite of services is absolutely integral to our quality of life and way of life. People all over Australia have been aghast at the 40 or more per cent price increase over the last four years. I think in this place we should all be demanding a hell of a lot more for the money of the people of Australia, including the option to pay much, much less for the basic supply of the limited power we householders and the householders of all of Australia need. The report in the Sunday Mail the other day showed that the electricity companies have absolute contempt for the regulator. (Time expired)