Second Reading

Danny O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (16:49): I am pleased to rise to speak on the National Energy Retail Law (Victoria) Bill 2024. I will begin by expressing my bemusement with many of those opposite talking up particularly the minister but generally the government’s policies on energy and how wonderful they are and how nation leading they are and how Victoria is leading the way on energy policy – all on a bill, I might add, that is dumping a Victorian scheme in favour of a national scheme. It is quite bemusing to me as well that this legislation is in fact dropping what was introduced by the former Labor government in 2007, because it recognises that it is probably not fit for purpose and that we should adopt the National Energy Retail Law, which is a national scheme of course. I am bemused at the way these things come. Someone did not check that in the caucus notes that went around as to how to talk up the government on this bill.

But the legislation, as my colleagues have indicated, is not being opposed by the opposition. It is sensible legislation to ensure that we protect consumers in the event of retail failure, which as the second-reading speech indicates, does happen. In fact in an ‘efficient competitive market, market exit is a natural occurrence,’ the second-reading speech says, which is interesting. It does not seem normally that the minister actually believes in an efficient competitive market; she believes in government intervention – but I might come to that a little bit later.

This legislation basically provides a retailer of last resort. It ensures that if someone’s retailer goes under, that customer is swiftly transferred to another provider and ensures that their power stays on, which is something that I want to touch on a bit. It has become increasingly a big issue in my electorate and indeed I am sure right across the state – the lack of reliability of supply. It is nothing to do with the retailers but everything to do with the transmission and distribution system that has been repeatedly failing, no more so than in the storms event of 13 February earlier this year. Not for a second, though, am I blaming the transmission and distribution companies for what was a freak storm, particularly as it hit my electorate, most particularly in the township of Mirboo North.

We had people across the state off power for three, four or five days, but in places like Mirboo North and a number of other locations across Gippsland in the north-east for longer than seven days. The seven days is important, because this generous government, which is always apparently looking after the issues of energy consumers, provided a support package for those who had lost power but not unless they had lost power for seven days. I heard one of the minister’s good friends on the radio this morning talking about how he and many others in Mirboo North were reconnected to power after six days and 22 hours. Therefore, notwithstanding the fact that they had lost considerable goods – particularly out of their fridges and freezers but also incurring significant costs in terms of diesel for generators and the like – they were eligible for precisely nothing from the Allan Labor government. The Premier and the Minister for Energy and Resources came to Mirboo North on the Friday after the storm that occurred on the Tuesday afternoon and announced this scheme. It is great that the Premier and the minister came to Mirboo North at the time to announce that scheme, but not a single person in the state was eligible for it because they had to be off power for seven days and it was only four days after the event. As it turned out, as I have indicated, many, many people did not qualify.

There is one particular niche issue that I want to raise here. The prolonged power outage payment, for which, as I said, people had to be off power for at least seven days, had a household and a business component. Whilst a number of constituents in Mirboo North did get access to the business component early on in the piece, I have subsequently discovered about a dozen or so constituents who have not been able to, and these are businesses operating from home – home-based businesses. The rule initially ‍– it was available on the AusNet website – was that if you operated a home-based business and you were a registered business with the relevant state authority, you could get the residential component plus the difference between the residential component and the business component, and a number of businesses did receive that. But at some point in time – I do not know whether it was that the Treasurer came in and took over or whether the department saw an opportunity to make some savings – they made home-based businesses absolutely ineligible for that prolonged power outage payment unless they had a separate business electricity account. If you are running a small accountancy firm, a photography studio, a hairdresser or any other business – one business I spoke to was a PR firm – from home, you are not going to have a separate business electricity account. For the government to say ‘Sorry, you don’t qualify’ after these people and their businesses had been without power for more than seven days is absolutely obscene penny pinching.

Of the people that I heard of, and I advertised this issue on the Mirboo North Facebook page and had a number of people come back to me about it, it might be in total across the state maybe 20, maybe 30 ‍people. That equates to a total of $20,000 or $30,000. These businesses are going to miss out on an extra payment because they do not have a business electricity account at home, notwithstanding that they are legitimately operating a business from home. The government has said, ‘No, you’re getting nothing; you get the residential payment and nothing else.’ That is the meanest penny pinching. If the boot was on the other foot with this government, those opposite would be going spare about it, and quite rightly, because this is just absurd. These small businesses – they are mostly mums, they are mostly young women – are being denied access because this government has made the criteria so tight. I think that is just absolutely wrong.

Previous speakers have also highlighted the issues that are occurring more broadly in the energy market and the development of the renewable energy policies. We have seen today in this chamber some absolutely disgraceful behaviour by the government trying to shut down any voices, but in the energy space we are seeing it more broadly with the decision of the government last month to introduce amendment VC261. I am sure all members opposite have been reading amendment VC261. I can see the member for Frankston nodding. He would have been having a good hard look at it, because he would know that his constituents now are going to be muzzled when it comes to objecting or raising concerns about renewable energy or the transmission and distribution lines, or the batteries that the member for Geelong raised as being so welcomed in her electorate. If you are subject to one of those being developed nearby under amendment VC261, you will no longer be able to have your objection heard at VCAT. You will no longer be able to have a planning panel because of this change. The government has put out the explanatory report on this change, and it states inside, on pages 1 and 2:

Additionally, as there is an urgent need to maintain Victoria’s electricity supply, the state will need to begin rapid renewable energy facility construction which will include new and upgraded utility installations.

The justification for silencing regional Victorians who might be opposed to a renewable energy facility or indeed the transmission and distribution lines, which was not actually made clear when the government first made this announcement, is that we are going to do so because the government has to replace energy supply to meet its policies, because its policies are actually shutting down our energy supplies. That is happening because of the 2035 renewable energy target – 95 per cent – which is going to ensure that not only Yallourn but Loy Yang and Loy Yang B power stations will close. As a result the government is madly scrambling to try and meet those targets under renewable energy and in the same process is shutting down the voice of regional Victorians who might have something to say about it. That is a disgraceful decision by this government. It is removing the rights of particularly regional Victorians. I say regional Victorians because all those over there, with a few exceptions, do not actually have the impact of renewable energy facilities in their electorates, because they have actually been specifically precluded in most cases by this government’s laws. The government stands condemned for that. This National Energy Retail Law is sensible and reasonable to ensure that retail consumers are protected, but they are not protected from the failing policies of this Allan Labor government.

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