Danny O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (15:22): I am pleased to rise to say a few words on the Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023. I do so with a little bit of pride but also a little bit of disappointment in that this legislation is really a response to the very significant storms that we had in Victoria in June and October of 2021, and despite much of the conversation revolving around the Dandenongs and other parts of the state that were certainly very badly hit, very rarely is it acknowledged the damage that was done particularly in South Gippsland on the southern side of the Strzelecki Ranges.
I will say that I rise with a little bit of pride in that it was at the end of June 2021 that I stood here in this place and asked for the minister to undertake a review of the arrangements around distribution and transmission networks – particularly distribution – when it comes to power outages because we saw significant impacts on people throughout my electorate through the power outages that occurred as a result of those storms, and it was good that eventually the government did proceed with the electricity distribution network resilience review. That one had people turning the pages, I am sure. But I say I am a little bit disappointed because, while we support the legislation before us, I am not entirely sure that it is going to make that much difference if these instances happen again.
It was a significant event. I remember we were actually here in this Parliament on I think it was a Wednesday night, from memory, when this storm came through, and it was horrendous here in Melbourne. My colleagues and I did leave on the Thursday morning because flooding had begun throughout our electorates in Gippsland, and indeed the member for Gippsland East and I just got through Traralgon as the Traralgon Creek rose very considerably, and we managed to get home. I spent the next 24 to 36 hours waiting for the Thomson River at Sale to peak, and thankfully it peaked considerably lower than was expected at the time. It was a major flood but no significant damage was done, and the locals who have been around for a very long time will tell me that whilst there was a flood coming down the Latrobe and the Thomson there was not anything really in the Macalister, and that is usually what causes a big flood around Sale and the Sale wetlands. As I said, we dodged a bit of a bullet. There was significant flooding but not significant damage.
However, once the first part of the storm’s impact was over, I hit the road through South Gippsland to assess the damage, as I said, particularly on the southern side of the Strzelecki Ranges. What happened in this storm was that we got basically a south-easterly storm coming up from Bass Strait, which is highly unusual. Most of our weather in Gippsland comes from the south-west or the west and in summer from the north-west, and a south-easterly just caused havoc because, literally, the trees were not used to it. It caused extensive damage right across the region for several days afterwards. As I was driving around, seeing where I could help and assist, the sound of chainsaws was just constant wherever I went, even in some of the most remote parts of the Strzelecki Ranges. I remember on the Saturday afternoon I caught up with a local farmer at Dumbalk North and we drove on the Milford Road. Indeed I have got the video. I shot video of it on time lapse, so it is sort of sped up. It was just horrendous – the trees across this road. That was a day or two after it had happened, and the local farmers had actually gone through and cleared a path so you could drive through it. But there were still trees literally from one side of the hill across the road onto the other side of the hill, just dozens and dozens of them, and as I drove around that was the case in many, many places.
Of course the bigger issue in the days following that was the power outages. Again, in that area of the Strzelecki Ranges it was quite significant, and I had people at the time in the Mount Best area in particular, I am sure from my notes and memory, whose power was off for up to 12 days. In some cases they got power back on briefly, but not in others. This is a fairly remote area. Mount Best is north of Toora and Foster. There is quite a population up there, but they are fairly remote. There was certainly frustration from some constituents obviously about the time it took get power put back on but also about the fact that AusNet did not even know where their powerlines went and where to go and look for a fault. Certainly, there was also frustration from some that simple fuse remedies, which would normally have been undertaken by a local linesman who would know the area, did not occur because a local contractor had lost the contract some time earlier. There was that frustration about power – and the member for Croydon talked about the loss of freezers and of fridges full of food.
There were certainly people who lost contact. One of the frustrations of course is that much of the information about any emergency like this is provided online. After a couple of days people’s mobile service went, their power went and they could not check online, and it was very difficult and very frustrating for many of them. There were animal welfare issues, with a number of dairy farmers who did not have backup supplies. I suspect most of them do now. But I remember driving along a road at Devon North or Won Wron – in the Calrossie area, I guess – and meeting a lady who just said, ‘What do I do?’ She was out the front of her property and literally had cows needing to be milked that had gone at that stage about 36 hours without being milked. In the end she had to walk them to a neighbour’s, I think, and have it done.
As I said, I called for a review to be undertaken. I called for there to be better consultation with the community on the review. I must say, from the information that was provided back to me via the minister at the time, I do not know that there was significant engagement from people who were actually affected. There was a public information session or a public feedback session at Traralgon at one stage, and I think six people turned up, which suggests that this was way too quiet and that the people that were most dramatically affected really did not get listened to.
I am a bit perplexed by the legislation. I understand what it is trying to do, but the move for the secretary to compel electricity distribution businesses to provide them information to assist in emergency management operations – well, I am not entirely sure what information we are talking about. Certainly AusNet, which is both the transmission and the distribution provider in Gippsland, did its best. I gave them credit at the time for trying as fast as they could to get people back online. And there was frustration of course about the information provided at the time. In some cases they would say, ‘We’ll be back on midnight tomorrow night’, and then the next day it would be midnight the next night and in some cases days and weeks in advance.
It certainly was a frustration, but I am not sure how having legislation to direct businesses to provide this sort of information is going to make that much difference, because they are trying. They are clearly making an effort to provide information to customers, and in this circumstance June in particular was a pretty unprecedented storm, so it was very difficult for them to gauge exactly how long it would be in some circumstances. And of course being such a widespread event across the state meant that you just could not bring crews in from elsewhere instantly, and I know they were bringing in crews from interstate to try and do that.
The second part of the direction is to compel distribution businesses to support and administer relief programs and payments. Well, again, maybe that is a useful backup plan, but as I recall that is how relief was delivered at that time in 2021, so I am not sure that we are adding a lot of value in this legislation. It is certainly not something to be opposed. We support the attempt to do something better, but I think there are other recommendations in the report as well, though, that could be looked at, and that includes things like the payments for people who are off for seven days. There were many people who were off power for five, six and 6½ days who then did not qualify for those payments and, as I said, incurred significant costs.
Just briefly, there are other aspects of the legislation with relation to fees for the Victorian energy upgrades program and the civil penalties that can be applied that are giving some powers to both the minister and the Essential Services Commission, but I think we probably still could do better with respect to trying to be better prepared and better responding to future major outages events, because I know it did cause significant problems for my constituents in Gippsland South.