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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2002 Week 13 Hansard (20 November) . . Page.. 3788 ..

MR CORNWELL (continuing):

I believe that the Assembly should have a look at what the government proposes to assist low and fixed income people in this territory in relation to the introduction of the FRC for electricity.

I commend the motion to the house.

MS DUNDAS (11.01): I commend Mr Cornwell for this motion, which I support wholeheartedly. During estimates hearings I questioned the minister on why full retail contestability was likely to occur when it clearly would not be in the interests of the majority of ACT residents who use relatively small amounts of electricity.

It was clear then, as it is clear now, that full retail contestability was unsound on both social and environmental grounds. Yet the government has gone ahead and committed to a system that will punish the poor and reward those who contribute to global warming and air pollution by using large amounts of electricity.

In the estimates hearings in July, I asked the Treasurer whether he could guarantee that low-income people would not be worse off after full retail contestability in electricity was introduced. The Treasurer acknowledged that electricity is an essential service but claimed that the government could not guarantee that low-income people would not be worse off as a result of competition being introduced.

I have since then publicly urged the Treasurer to reconsider the push for full retail contestability. Under national competition policy there is a public interest exemption that could have been used in this instance. I am disappointed that he has chosen to go ahead with all competition rather than use this exemption.

However, I am even more disappointed and concerned that we have not been informed of any government plans to compensate low-income earners for hikes in electricity bills. Back in July, when I was asking the Treasurer all these questions about full retail contestability, I also asked what measures he was planning to adopt to keep electricity affordable to low-income households. The best he could come up with was that he was "thinking" about strategies. That was six months after the ICRC released its report which drew attention to the fact that low-income earners would suffer from high supply charges. Five months on, it seems that Mr Quinlan has not got much further with his thinking, and we are only months away from the target date for introduction of full retail contestability. So this motion is quite timely, and hopefully it will direct the minister's thinking.

The government currently operates a subsidy program for low-income people and could have made a commitment to broaden the current subsidies in order to cover rising electricity bills when the expected hike in supply charges occurs. I was concerned in July, as I still am now, that there was no increase in budget funding to meet the increased cost of compensation for those on low incomes.

I believe that the community should be given an opportunity to consider and comment upon proposed measures to assist low-income households hit by rising power bills. But when the government has not yet developed any options and it is already November, it is hard to see that enough time has been allowed to properly evaluate the impacts or possible solutions.

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