ENERGY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (GENERAL) BILL 2013

Written on the 28 February 2014

Second reading - 4 February 2014 - Debate resumed from 12 December 2013; motion of Hon. G. K. RICH-PHILLIPS (Assistant Treasurer).

Mr LEANE (Eastern Metropolitan) -- I am happy to provide a brief contribution on this bill. The shadow Minister for Energy and Resources, Lily D'Ambrosio, the member for Mill Park in the Assembly, gave a comprehensive response to the bill on behalf of the opposition, so I see no need to replicate what she said. It was an excellent statement of the opposition's position on this bill. This is a simple bill, and the opposition does not oppose it. These are small and non-controversial amendments to the Electrical Industry Act 2000 and the Gas Industry Act 2001.

The opposition's main concern with the bill is its effect on current exemptions from licensing requirements for small-scale energy generation. These will be subject to conditions set by the Essential Services Commission. We are concerned about the extent to which these conditions will be applied and the energy generators that will be subject to those conditions. Will they apply to something as minor as people who have solar panels on their roofs? I would be happy for a government member to state that this is not the case.
We are concerned that the government seems to be anti alternative energy and pro carbon emissions. We heard the rhetoric from the coalition when it was in opposition. It stated that the Brumby government's feed-in tariff for solar energy was not good enough and that it should be a gross rather than a net feed-in tariff. We have also seen the planning changes this government has introduced which have limited the use of wind generation. They are of great concern to us.

We appreciate Mr Barber has given notice that he may introduce an amendment. In the limited time opposition members have had to digest that amendment, we think it has some merit, but we would appreciate Mr Barber explaining, either in his contribution to the debate or in the committee stage, how he believes his amendments would work under this act.

In saying that, the opposition does not oppose this bill. As I said, it introduces minor amendments to a couple of acts. We do not need to labour the point. We will be happy to have more discussion in the committee stage.

Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) -- I am very saddened to hear that the members of the Labor and Liberal parties think that the kind of minor level tinkering contained in this bill is up to the job of addressing the crisis in energy affordability that has been ongoing for a number of years now.

Mr Finn interjected.

Mr BARBER -- Mr Finn says 'The carbon tax'. In a minute we will look at that and at Mr Finn's electorate -- where there are many low-income people, as I am sure there are in Mr Ramsay's electorate, who have difficulty with the cost of living -- where there has been a huge surge in the number of people being disconnected by their electricity supplier due to affordability problems.

The privatised electricity market, which was introduced by the Kennett government and maintained pretty much in its current form by Labor in its 11 years in government, is failing the citizens of Victoria, particularly those who have experienced difficulties in paying their bills. Not so long ago -- I think it was a year or two ago -- in this place members of the Labor and Liberal parties got together to pass a bill that further reduced the rights of those who had been wrongfully disconnected by their power provider.

People who are wrongfully disconnected are eligible for compensation of $250 a day should they be able to prove that claim. However, the measure that was brought in at that time, which the Greens opposed, provided that if people do not make the claim within 14 days they lose their eligibility.

Perhaps we will hear from Mr Finn, who just for once is not shouting at the top of his lungs but is murmuring away about whether he believes that this is a problem in his electorate and what he is willing to do about it. The figures are as follows.

Mr Finn interjected.

Mr BARBER -- I will buy you a one-way ticket, Mr Finn.

In Victoria in 2008-09, there were 0.43 disconnections of residences per 100 customers; in 2009-10, the figure was 0.59, a significant jump; in 2010-11, it was 0.77; and in 2011-12 the figure was 1.02 disconnections per 100 residences. I wonder if members recall what happened in the power market at the end of the 2011-12 financial year? The answer is that the carbon tax was introduced. According to members on the government side, the carbon tax would not only put out the lights across the generation system but also send everybody broke. In fact, people received quite good compensation through their pensions and the taxation system to balance the effect of the carbon tax on the cost of living. Further, in the 2012-13 financial year, the most recent year for which we have data, there were 1.07 disconnections per 100 residences. That was a small increase, but nothing like the close to one-third annual increase that was occurring in the years prior to the introduction of the carbon tax, while the Labor and Liberal parties did nothing.

It is essential that we do something about this. In my opinion, we need further regulation -- not further deregulation -- of the way the electricity market works in relation to vulnerable customers. Digging for and burning coal faster, which both the Labor and Liberal parties would like to do, will not drive down the price of power in any significant way.

Mr Leane interjected.

Mr BARBER -- How do I know what Labor wants to do, Mr Leane? I look back over the 10 years during which there was a Labor federal government and at the number of coal and gas exploration and production licences issued by the federal ministers for the environment under the Rudd and Gillard governments. Then I look over in Mr Leane's direction and I see where Mr Lenders sits. He has said before in this place that he is committed to rolling out coal seam gas and unconventional gas development across the state of Victoria. Labor members are the fossil fuel party with their Liberal Party mates over the way.

That will not keep down energy prices here in Victoria. In fact, even as members of the Liberal Party and The Nationals seek to roll out even more gas connections to more Victorian households, what they are not telling Victorians is that they predict that the price of domestic gas here in Victoria will double as it becomes linked to the export price. For that matter, here in Victoria we are running out of natural gas. It is expected to peak -- --

Ms Crozier interjected.

Mr BARBER -- Ms Crozier, in the Australian Energy Market Operator's Gas Statement of Opportunities members will find the Australian Energy Market Operator's projection that gas production from our Bass Strait fields will peak in about 2017 and continue to decline. This is not Greg Barber talking.

I do not need to come in here -- --

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr BARBER -- This is not just Greg Barber talking; this is in fact the people charged by the federal government to do planning for our gas and electricity future, and so it is predictable that even as Ms Crozier's government seeks to connect more people to reticulated gas systems, their gas bills are expected to go from being relatively low cost, as they have been for many years, to quite expensive. In fact a much better option would be to encourage those people to connect to solar energy and run an efficient split cycle air-conditioning and heating unit in their own home.

Ms Crozier interjected.

Mr BARBER -- Ms Crozier is locking them into a highly expensive energy future when she encourages them to connect to gas, which, traditionally, has been very cheap in Victoria.

This bill and specifically my amendment deal with electricity. For a little while we had a bill in this Parliament that was meant to set up a national consumer framework for the protection of consumers of electricity. The bill was tabled in the Parliament and then it was withdrawn. The Minister for Energy and Resources told us that he did not like the provisions in the national legislation and therefore he would not be proceeding with them at that time. It was one of the very few instances I have seen since privatisation when the minister for energy in Victoria was actually prepared to act like a minister for energy. Mostly they just deregulate and hand all this off to a federal jurisdiction and say, 'That is the end of it, I am not interested'.

There is a provision in the National Energy Retail Law which I think is quite important and quite urgent here in Victoria, and I do not think we can wait until some state-and-federal ministers round table rodeo up there finally works it out, and that is the disconnection of people's electricity supply during extreme weather events including heatwaves. We have just had the hottest year on record here in Victoria and that has been followed by an extreme heatwave -- a record-breaking heatwave -- which we already know has caused the deaths of numerous vulnerable people here in Victoria. I have been overseas for most of January, but when I got back I read very distressing accounts on early estimates of how many people may have died as a result of those days of extreme heat that we had during January. It is distressing but true to say that the morgues and other facilities were overflowing at the end of that heatwave.

It is an extraordinarily serious matter. We knew it was going to happen, because it happened in January 2009.

When we asked the Minister for Health today what he was going to do about it, I believe I heard him say that such events may not recur. I will have to check Hansard tomorrow, but it would really worry me if the Minister for Health was suggesting that the extreme heatwave we have just experienced was a one-off event. He has joined the climate denialist movement in here on the back bench. That is a very worrying sign in any case. If the minister wants more information, he can refer to his own government's plan, the Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan, and in that he will find -- in this document drafted and released by his government -- that it says we can expect an increase in the number of extreme heatwave days under its chosen climate change scenario.

Mr Finn interjected.

Mr BARBER -- Mr Finn is quite distressed by all this -- --

Mr Finn interjected.

Mr BARBER -- And he suggests that what I am talking about is something that may lack veracity.
Mr Finn interjected.

Mr BARBER -- I am quoting the Australian Energy Market Operator; I am quoting the recently published Essential Services Commission Energy Retailers Comparative Performance Report -- Customer Service 2012-13; and I am quoting his own government's climate change adaptation plan based on the best available information from the CSIRO. I am quoting other learned bodies and the facts that they have put forward -- facts matter. Just because Mr Finn's party now controls both state and federal governments does not allow government members to suspend the facts. They are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.

Mr Ramsay interjected.

Mr BARBER -- Just coming in here, really loudly, Mr Weather Gauge over there, Mr Ramsay, thinks he can quote today's temperature as some kind of evidence.

Mr Finn interjected.

Mr BARBER -- I was on Mount Kenya checking out how much its glaciers have receded in the last 20 years, and that was from direct experience.

Mr Finn interjected.

Mr BARBER -- 'Feelpinions' and 'anecdata' might be enough for the Liberal Party room, but they are not good enough for policy-making when lives are at stake.

I am horrified at the idea that a low-income person who has got themselves into difficulty could have their electricity supply disconnected in the middle of one of these extreme heatwaves. Therefore I am proposing an amendment, and I will explain to Mr Leane and other members how it works and where it arises.

The law I mentioned earlier, the National Energy Retail Law, contained a provision which is not yet in Victorian law, and that is that customers would not be disconnected from electricity supply during extreme weather events. I appear to have routed the main climate change denialists. There is just me and Ms Crozier left to argue the toss. I will read out the key wording here which defines an extreme weather event. It states:

Extreme weather event, in relation to a domestic customer, means an event declared by an instrument to be an extreme weather event in the area in which the domestic customer's premises is located.

Of course in the federal framework law that would apply differently in each jurisdiction, but here in Victoria we have a relevant provision in sections 95 and 96 of the Electricity Industry Act 2000. The principal act allows the minister to make declarations in relation to various kinds of events that might put all or part of the electricity supply at risk. It is my contention that that provision could be used in conjunction with my amendment to make a declaration and set directions as to how it is to be implemented, such that on extreme days like we have recently had, and in anticipation of the increasing number of extreme hot weather days we can expect in the future, the minister could use the mechanism provided for in my amendment to make it illegal for power companies to cut power off in the middle of an extreme heatwave. As I said, the wording is largely borrowed from the proposed federal law -- the one which the government brought here and then withdrew.

Given the situation we find ourselves in now, with the recent deaths that we have seen from the heatwave and the prospect of more such extreme weather in the future, I believe it is imperative for the government to act. A lot of people out there cannot afford to run air conditioning during hot weather. Darebin City Council, led by Greens councillor, Trent McCarthy, has been taking practical measures to look after some of its vulnerable citizens. It handed out pedestal fans to people. They are pretty cheap to buy, and if you sit in front of one of them with a wet towel around your neck, you will get quite a good cooling effect for very little energy.

Ms Crozier -- That is what I do.

Mr BARBER -- Thank you, Ms Crozier. If I can, I tend to head off to the movies and watch a movie or two in the heat of the day, but that costs money and not everybody has that sort of money.

We have seen reports of homeless people who sought refuge in shopping centres and other places around the city. They went in there to cool off, and it has been reported that they were evicted by the shop owners who did not want people hanging around their shops to stay cool. That led Melbourne City Council to take the quite extraordinary step of opening up some of its air-conditioned premises just to keep people alive. As Ms Hartland was suggesting earlier today during question time, that is the kind of emergency response we would expect from a state government, in the same way as it would respond to a bushfire or flood emergency.

In fact we know -- and neither Mr Elsbury nor Ms Crozier were around at the time -- that when the health authorities were interrogated during a parliamentary committee after the 2009 heatwave, the Department of Health basically said that these were people who were going to die anyway. They were people who had pre-existing illnesses and the effect of the heatwave was to cause them all to die in a short period. I found that to be an extraordinarily cavalier statement. That may come up somewhere in the cold, hard logic of the health budget, but I do not believe it is an acceptable policy position. The Minister for Health would well remember that because he sat in as a substitute member of the committee during those particular hearings. A $20 million royal commission looked into the Black Saturday bushfires, the tragic fires which we will commemorate on Thursday, but nothing more than an hour or two of parliamentary time was devoted to the even greater number of deaths that occurred in the days prior to Black Saturday.

We know from medical authorities who spoke about this matter last week that we have had more of the same. It is absolutely predictable. When a series of hot days are followed by a series of hot nights, usually two or three in a row is enough to cause a spike in the death rate amongst vulnerable groups and particularly amongst the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Local government has done a lot. The previous government did not do much at all. Prior to 2009, under the Bracks and Brumby governments, we were promised a statewide heatwave strategy. In fact what was delivered -- and it was delivered after the deaths of 2009 -- was a template document for a heatwave strategy for local governments.

We have made some progress in that area. I was in Horsham over the weekend, and I was told that through the home and community care program the most vulnerable clients are called -- the people who are socially isolated and elderly, some even with a degree of mental deterioration.

They do not know how to deal with the heat, and often they do not act. I know of one instance that occurred in Adelaide where some people from Melbourne got worried about their mother who was living alone in Adelaide. She used to get the newspaper from the local newsagent every morning. When she did not come down to get her paper, the newsagent went to her house and found her sitting in her armchair still wearing her cardigan, deceased. Older people often do not have the ability to manage their own situation to avoid these tragic effects, and that is avoidable.

I understand the point of the medical authorities when they say these are excess deaths, as they call them. These are people who over a period of months or more might have died due to an underlying illness, but the facts remain that during heatwaves a lot of them die very quickly, and there are things that we could do to avoid that. Not cutting off their electricity supply in the middle of a heatwave would be a good start.

That is why I am proposing this particular amendment, which gives the minister and the government only one more option. It does not put any extra requirements on anybody, but it gives an additional option whereby the minister could declare an extreme weather event in relation to domestic customers, and in those circumstances, during the period of the event, it would not be lawful for a company to start disconnecting people.

In fact some disconnections due to planned maintenance occurred recently up in the north-east somewhere, and that hit the newspapers as well. That caused a lot of hardship and distress in that community, but I am addressing specifically the issue of disconnections as they relate to residential customers. That is in my proposed amendment, which we will be addressing in the committee stage, and I hope the government and the opposition will give it some consideration.

I would also like to put forward a question for government members, and it may be something they can answer at some stage. In terms of the national framework for electricity consumer law that was brought in as a bill to this house, could the government tell us if there has been any progress on the bill or its negotiations? Is it intended to bring the bill back, because the text of my amendment is drawn from that original bill. If we could have that bill brought back into Parliament quickly, we might have a mechanism for delivering the same thing I am trying to achieve here.

 

Mr ELSBURY (Western Metropolitan) -- Before I commence, it would be nice to have a copy of the amendment made available.

Mr O'Brien -- You won't see it.

Mr ELSBURY -- We won't see it? That is interesting.

But in any case, I am pleased to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (General) Bill 2013 -- and I have just been handed the amendment. It was thrown to me as I stood to speak. This bill seeks to improve the information customers receive about their energy options, be it electricity or gas. We are working through the process of assisting customers during this transitional period between old metering technology and the smart meters, as they have been called -- or advanced metering infrastructure -- but we will keep it to smart meters.

The rollout of smart meters was very difficult. People were forced to pay more than we would have expected them to pay to have a smart meter installed on their property. As someone once said, it would be like paying Coles when they needed new cash registers. It just does not happen. They have to work it into their normal financial planning -- put an extra cent on a packet of cornflakes or something like that. Instead, people were being charged additional costs for having smart meters placed on their properties under the previous Labor government.
We are still living with the legacy of needing legislation that reflects the changes that have occurred within the electricity sector to take full advantage of the technology that has been presented to us. Smart meters as a whole are not a bad idea.

The ability to get an accurate reading of your electricity use, an accurate reading of how much you owe a retail company for your electricity and even up-to-date information about how much energy you are using at any given moment are all benefits that this technology brings.

Smart meters will come to the fore as flexible pricing plans are introduced by retail companies. They allow the consumer, be they a small business or a household, to use the information gathered by their smart meter to decide which flexible pricing package will best suit them. This is very similar to what your telephone company would do. On the odd occasion your telephone company might suggest that because you are making a few more phone calls, whether they are international or interstate, you might want to change your plan to reflect that fact so that you have cheaper calls -- and the Labor Party has had a lot of interstate phone calls during its preselection process.

Your internet service provider may also suggest that you need to increase the amount of data you can download or the data charges you are paying.

While this technology has been available for telephones and for your internet service providers, it will now be available for your electricity use, which is something that people are quite conscious of in trying to keep track of their costs and reduce their energy bills, and certainly in some instances -- and Mr Barber will be quite happy with this -- in trying to reduce their impact on the environment. They feel that reducing the number of lights they have on in the house or turning off the air conditioner at certain times of the day or running their air conditioner more efficiently is the best way to go.

In my household we do not leave the air conditioner blaring away all day and all night, and we do not try to make a refrigerated environment in our house. It is kept at a reasonable level.

We do not walk around in duffel coats when the air conditioner is on, nor do we, during the winter time, walk around in just our speedos. That is a sight no-one wants to see.

The Energy Legislation Amendment (General) Bill 2013 -- a nice short title for the bill -- makes amendments to the Electricity Industry Act 2000 and the Gas Industry Act 2001. The Electricity Industry Act 2000 will have the definition of licensee in section 3 of that act removed, as the Energy Legislation Amendment (Flexible Pricing and Other Matters) Act 2013 made that particular reference redundant.

Further, the Electricity Industry Act 2000 will be amended to change notification requirements for electricity retailers to improve and simplify the methods by which they inform their customers about the energy package options that are available.

A new website tool named My Power Planner will be able to provide information to customers who have a smart meter installed at their property about what deals are available to them. If you have a smart meter, you need to go to My Power Planner. The Essential Services Commission will publish retail offers for gas customers and electricity customers who are yet to transfer to the smart meter system on the 'Your Choice' website. This differentiation will ensure that customers are informed of what electricity and gas plans are relevant to them and their property.

We heard a lot of talk about financial hardship and people who have difficulty paying their bills when Mr Barber was talking about his proposed amendment. It is my strong belief that the government will not support his amendment for several reasons. Firstly, it is not clear how many customers would benefit from Mr Barber's amendment.

The Victorian energy retail code already places restrictions on retailers in relation to disconnecting a customer's electricity for non-payment of a bill where the customer lacks sufficient income -- for example, the retailer must issue a reminder notice and contact the customer to offer alternative payment arrangements.

It is unclear why the restriction would apply only to financial hardship customers. As has already been stated, there are people with medical conditions who suffer heat-related complications to their illness which could even cause death. Schools, families with small children and customers with medical cooling needs are also impacted by extreme weather events, whether they are hot days or cold days. We do also have exceptionally cold days in Victoria.

Disconnection during extreme weather events has not previously been raised as a significant issue by consumers.

It was not raised in recent feedback from the public on energy sector issues. It is also a bit difficult to define an extreme weather event. Is it when it is hot and windy, or when it is just hot? How hot does it have to be to be classified as an extreme weather event? Who classifies an extreme weather event? These are the issues that would need to be fleshed out. They were not explained by Mr Barber in his speech, nor by the piece of paper I was handed moments after taking to my feet to speak on this bill.
In relation to financial hardship, the financial hardship policies of licensed electricity and gas retailers will be aligned between the two energy provision methods so that the obligations are the same. The Essential Services Commission will also be able to act upon existing retail energy policies which fail to meet these minimum obligations. New licensed electricity and gas retailers who enter the Victorian market will be required to provide their hardship policies to the Essential Services Commission within three months of having their licence approved.

The Essential Services Commission will be empowered by this bill to instruct a retailer to review its hardship policy to make sure the policy meets the minimum criteria.

Licensing exemption legislation will be updated by the bill, as the definitions are almost 20 years old, having been unchanged since 1994. The Essential Services Commission administers the licensing regime for any person wishing to distribute or retail gas or to generate, transmit, distribute or retail electricity in Victoria. There are exemptions for those needing a licence. Examples of exemptions under the Electricity Industry Act 2000 include the sale of electricity by a company to a related body corporate and retail and distribution within an embedded network. Embedded networks exist where there is distribution and sale of electricity within a premises by the owner of that premises -- for example, where a body corporate sells and distributes electricity to all the apartments in a building.

Embedded networks can also occur in caravan parks, shopping centres and retirement homes.

Another exemption from licensing is granted for the generation of less than 30 megawatts of electricity if the electricity is sold to a licensed retailer -- for example, a domestic customer selling electricity generated by their solar panels to their retailer would be exempt from needing a licence; I believe there was some confusion in the other place about that issue. To make it crystal clear, if you have a solar panel on your roof, so long as you are selling that electricity back to a retailer, you do not need to have a licence to generate that electricity and feed it into the grid. The Gas Industry Act 2001 provides exemptions which include distribution of liquid natural gas by road tanker to very large business customers.

The bill repeals some provisions in relation to cross-ownership of electricity, gas, transmission and generation that have become redundant as a consequence of the Energy Legislation Amendment (Flexible Pricing and Other Matters) Act 2013.

The bill provides for the implementation of the new smart meter technology, a technology that was foisted onto the people of Victoria by the previous government at great expense. We are now having to pick up the pieces, including conducting a review of the safety of these items. A safety audit is being carried out to provide a little more certainty to the people of Victoria that the technology is safe. I believe it is safe, but at times we need to provide people with additional assurance from a third party that can clearly outline the important features and the safe nature of the technology. The iPad sitting in front of me is currently emitting more microwave radiation than my smart meter at home. With those few words, I commend the bill to the house and look forward to its passage.

 


Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) -- I am pleased to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (General) Bill 2013. My colleague Mr Elsbury adequately outlined the technical aspects of the bill so I will not repeat those, but I will make a few comments in relation to the bill and highlight that it is part of the government's commitment to continue to provide information and support to Victorian households to assist them in managing their energy costs.

We are talking about various energy costs and the rollout of smart meters, which have had an impost on households and businesses. I remind members that the Productivity Commission looked into this issue and did an analysis of it. It found that:

Overall, it appears that the Victorian decision to roll out smart meters was premature and/or poorly planned with inadequate knowledge about smart meter technologies, their costs and associated risks.

Further, there was inadequate consumer education about the potential changes and benefits post the rollout. That is the legacy we were left with and what we have been dealing with -- cleaning up yet another Labor mess.

An Auditor-General's investigation found a historical lack of governance and central oversight of the smart meter rollout and that government had a responsibility to better support the implementation of the project. The then Minister for Energy and Resources, Mr O'Brien, the member for Malvern in the Assembly, said the priority was to deliver benefits for consumers, and that is what the government has done. It has got on with enabling consumers to better manage their energy costs. Since coming to power in 2010 the coalition government has done a number of things for Victorian consumers to achieve just that. Mr Barber made reference to the cost of living elements of electricity usage and disconnection, but there are overall pressures that sometimes lead to those disconnections.

I remind the chamber of exactly what the government has done. It has argued for reforms of network pricing and governance of the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) to ensure that the interests of consumers are now taken into account. Mr Barber would agree that is a significant improvement on the situation when the coalition came to government. It has introduced flexible pricing options to give customers the opportunity to choose offers that could save them significant amounts throughout the year, and it has introduced concessions throughout the year.

While we were experiencing the significant heatwave several days ago, the Minister for Community Services put out a media release.

Mr Barber said he was away, so he possibly missed the media release, but quite a lot of information went out to Victorians about how they should protect themselves against the heatwave. In that media release the minister said:

This is the third summer that the Victorian coalition government has delivered financial relief on summer electricity bills since introducing year-round energy concessions in 2011.

Prior to March 2011, the concessions were only available for six months of the year -- they did not extend throughout the hot summer period -- during the cooler autumn-winter period.That is a commitment the coalition government has delivered on, and it has had significant impacts for many Victorians who hold concession cards, health-care cards and veterans gold cards and for pensioners, who can be severely impacted by the rising costs of energy.

The government has done various other things to ensure that it is educating the consumer. In September last year the now Minister for Energy and Resources, Mr Kotsiras, established a community feedback link on the government's Switch On website, which allows Victorian householders who have concerns relating to electricity or gas usage to provide feedback on their concerns. This initiative has yielded a range of responses that the government is addressing. It is taking those concerns seriously, listening and acting on them.

Mr Elsbury mentioned some other elements.

He mentioned My Power Planner, an energy information website the government has initiated, which provides instant information on retail electricity contract offers. Householders are able to go to that site, and I have had a look at it. On the switchon.vic.gov.au website there are clear guidelines for a potentially complex issue. When looking at different pricing options, My Power Planner allows you to look at your electricity usage, look at peak hours, get the data, analyse that and improve your overall costs. The minister and the government should be commended for giving consumers more choice and flexible arrangements.

As I said, the government came in with that legacy. We have cleaned up the various elements that Labor left in relation to smart meters and fixed tariffs. We are looking at those elements, and this bill further enhances those initiatives for the consumer. I commend the bill to the house and wish it a speedy passage.

Motion agreed to. Read second time. Committed.

Committee - Clause 1

 

Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) -- I move:

1. Clause 1, page 2, lines 1 and 2, omit --in respect of the submission, review and approval of-- and insert --in relation to--.

I spoke to this amendment during the second-reading stage, but I would be happy to answer any further questions or enter into any discussion with the other parties about it.

 

Hon. P. R. HALL (Minister for Higher Education and Skills) -- I welcome the opportunity to respond to a couple of questions. Mr Leane raised a question in the course of debate and Mr Barber has moved an amendment. I think both of those can be dealt with in clause 1, so I will attempt to deal with them here.

Mr Leane asked a question about the exemptions from licence provisions, which are dealt with under the purpose clause, 1(a) of the bill, in terms of the circumstances in which an exemption might be granted.

I asked the same question when I was conferring on this provision with some people from the department and was told that a typical example might be where there is an owners cooperative formed over a number of residential units within the one building or between linked buildings and there is some generation of electricity purely to distribute to those within that owners corporation. Rather than the owners having to have a formal licence and do what those who hold a distribution licence are required to do by law, an exemption might be considered by the minister. We are not talking about exemptions being given for those seeking to distribute widely on a profit-motivated basis; it is really for those in-house types of things where generation might be shared for the purposes of people in a group like an owners corporation. That is a response to the question asked by Mr Leane.

In respect of the amendment moved by Mr Barber, first of all I have to say that any reasonable person would have some sympathy with the amendment moved. An electricity or even a gas distribution company that sought to disconnect on hardship grounds during a time of peak demand such as extreme weather conditions, whether that be heat or cold, would be crazy to do so. I am sure the negative publicity that would be generated would not be worth the company's effort in disconnecting in those times of extreme weather conditions.If you look at some of the hardship policies that are required to be produced by the distributors, you see they do not say they will not disconnect in a time of extreme weather conditions. If you read some of the words they use in those hardship policies, you see they suggest -- to me at least -- that disconnecting at a time of extreme weather conditions is the furthest thing from their minds. In front of me I have, for example, a copy of the customer hardship program produced by Origin Energy. It says:

Origin strives to have a customer management approach that is:

- empathetic and respectful;

- fair and reasonable to customers.

It also says:

We believe that energy disconnection of a customer due to hardship or an inability to pay their energy bills will be a last resort option ...
In discussing this matter with the minister we talked about it being a last resort option. Before considering disconnection I think energy companies go to some lengths to try to work through any problems customers might have. I am aware of the statistics for the disconnection rate that Mr Barber gave in his contribution, and I have no reason to doubt his claim that the numbers have risen over a period of time. He gave those figures in the course of the debate. Nevertheless, the intent of these hardship policies is to work with customers. Disconnection would be a last resort.

Whether we try to describe in legislation all elements of hardship policies is a matter for the Parliament to consider.

We believe that, given the nature of the hardship policies at the moment, the history of the use of hardship policies and the fact that any energy company would face a great negative backlash if they were to disconnect in the time of an extreme weather event as described by Mr Barber, it is not absolutely essential at this time to include this sort of amendment.

However, we are not at all unsympathetic to it. Through the advisers I have checked with the minister -- hence the tabling of this amendment in the Parliament this evening -- and, as Mr Barber has said, the national framework for electricity consumer law is an instrument we might well use to address the same issue. My advice from the minister is that that national framework for electricity consumer law is still being considered by his department. I can give Mr Barber a commitment that the minister has told me that the very issue framed in this amendment will be fairly and properly considered by the government in its response to the national framework for electricity consumer law.

In that case we may be able to deal with the particular issue, as Mr Barber said in his contribution, under that particular policy or consideration of government of whether it be adopted.

All in all, for the reasons I have described, we are not in a position to accept the amendment here tonight but we are in a position to give a commitment to the committee that there will be proper consideration of that intent as part of the government's further deliberations on the national framework for consumer law.

 

Mr LEANE (Eastern Metropolitan) -- I thank the minister for the clarification on the query that I put in my contribution on behalf of the opposition. I thank him for putting that on the public record. I think it was a fair and reasonable response.

I also think it was a fair and reasonable response from the minister regarding Mr Barber's amendment in that in the short time the opposition had -- from the time it received Mr Barber's amendment until now -- it had a very similar discussion to that which Mr Hall articulated about what sort of energy company would act in this fashion in an extreme weather event.

In saying that, we believe we have come to a position where we can support Mr Barber's amendment tonight. We appreciate that in circulating his amendment Mr Barber apologised for the lateness of its arrival. The opposition particularly likes to deal with things as a collective; its members like to have the time and opportunity to do that. Unfortunately today we have not had that opportunity with Mr Barber's amendment. I know there have been times when the opposition has presented late amendments. There has been a period in between parliamentary sittings, and this bill has been on the notice paper since late last year, and here we are in early February.

It is disappointing that we have not had a chance to deal with Mr Barber's amendment in the fashion we would have liked, but in saying that, we believe we can support the amendment.
Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) -- I thank the opposition for the consideration it has given to my amendment. This is a problem that has not snuck up on anybody; the problem of disconnections has been accelerating rapidly in recent years. I appreciate also the consideration the government has given to my amendment. As I said, the text of the amendment was drawn from a bill that the government presented to this place and then withdrew. If what the minister is saying is that the Minister for Energy and Resources is striking a hard bargain with the other energy ministers to protect some of the consumer frameworks we have had here in Victoria for quite some time, then I am glad to hear that. I am happy to have put the issue on the Parliament's agenda, and I look forward to seeing what the government comes up with by way of legislation in this area in the future.
Committee divided on amendment:


Ayes, 17 
Barber, Mr (Teller) Melhem, Mr 
Broad, Ms Mikakos, Ms 
Darveniza, Ms Pennicuik, Ms 
Eideh, Mr Pulford, Ms (Teller) 
Elasmar, Mr Scheffer, Mr 
Hartland, Ms Somyurek, Mr 
Jennings, Mr Tee, Mr 
Leane, Mr Tierney, Ms 
Lenders, Mr 

Noes, 18 
Coote, Mrs Kronberg, Mrs 
Crozier, Ms Lovell, Ms 
Dalla-Riva, Mr Millar, Mrs 
Davis, Mr D. O'Brien, Mr 
Drum, Mr (Teller) O'Donohue, Mr 
Elsbury, Mr Ondarchie, Mr 
Finn, Mr Peulich, Mrs 
Hall, Mr Ramsay, Mr (Teller) 
Koch, Mr Rich-Phillips, Mr 

Pairs Tarlamis, Mr Guy, Mr 
Viney, Mr Atkinson, Mr 

Amendment negatived.

Clause agreed to; clauses 2 to 23 agreed to.

Reported to house without amendment.

Report adopted.

Third reading - Hon. P. R. HALL (Minister for Higher Education and Skills) -- I move:

That the bill be now read a third time.
In so doing, I thank those who have contributed to the debate, particularly Mr Leane, Mr Barber, Mr Elsbury and Ms Crozier.

Motion agreed to. Read third time.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 May 2010


Email Subscribe

Please sign up to receive Georgie's e-newsletter




© 2011 Authorised by Georgie Crozier, 1/667-669 Glenhuntly Road Caulfield VIC 3162 | Privacy Policy | Sitemap