If household bills went up by more than 50 per cent in five years in any other market, governments would be clamouring to fix the problem. But in the electricity sector, the pace of change is glacial.
Electricity bills are the issue that is dominating our conversations, from the bus stop to the boardroom table. They are the number one cost-of-living concern for Australians, ahead of mortgages, rent and groceries.
The debate about how to fix this problem has, however, become bogged down in countless reviews, reports and committees.
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Mark Taylor has a lot to answer for.
For years the former Test captain has been interrupting matches to implore Australians to run out and buy air conditioners. It’s working.
Air conditioner penetration in Australia has exploded rapidly in recent years from 30 per cent in 2001, to 70 per cent in 2011. That’s a massive jump.
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When it comes to the question of cost of living, nothing focuses the mind as sharply as opening your power bill. In the past few months there have been competing studies showing that Australians are stretched to the hilt; conversely, other research suggests that on many measures we are doing better than other countries in the OECD.
The one cost increase which is not in dispute in this country is electricity.
I was reminded of this the hard way the other day when I went to the letterbox and got a quarterly bill from my good friends at AGL for $1590, for a four-bedroom house which is often unoccupied.
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Last week we asked the question - how much bad publicity can you buy for $801.91. That’s the amount I’d been charged by my power company for two months’ electricity in a one-bedroom apartment, extravagantly fitted with such turbo-charged items as a toaster and a radio.
The answer was a two-page bucketing in The Daily Telegraph. Given the equally ferocious reader response to the column, the bad publicity will now extend to a generous four pages, not (just) out of some vindictive sense of payback, but because there is a serious rort going on with our power companies.
It involves guess work around meter readings, which creates a gap when an actual reading is made at which a so-called catch-up bill is issued. When an actual reading is made, customers are billed at a new, increased rate for power they used months ago, before the price had gone up.
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I am not sure how much bad publicity you can buy for $801.91. If you based it on newspaper advertising rates you would get about an eighth of a page. To err on the side of generosity, here’s a couple of pages’ worth from Sydney’s biggest newspaper, aimed squarely at the miserable sods at the electricity company AGL.
To be clear from the outset, this isn’t some sly journalistic attempt to dodge a bill, albeit a ludicrous, unjustified bill. In my dealings with AGL – two convoluted telephone conversations and an email which they have not answered - I have not identified myself as a journalist. If their PR department tries to get in touch, they should save themselves the phone call as I’m paying this bill through gritted teeth, but writing about it here with a perverse degree of glee for two public interest reasons.
The first is that it simply shows the staggering increases in power prices which, while capable of being begrudgingly absorbed by an affluent person, would blast a hole in the budget of any normal family on the average wage.
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There is a squeamish message on the Cross City Tunnel website headed “Toll adjustment - 1st October 2010” which is notable for two reasons.
The first is that it reminds us how, in these jargon-addled times, things such as tolls never go up, jump or rise. They simply “adjust”. The second is that it demonstrates how the NSW Labor Government has abrogated much of its responsibility for protecting taxpayers from cost of living increases.
The construction of the Cross City Tunnel, as you may recall, finished behind schedule – but because of the contract between its operators and the NSW Government, where the price of the toll is linked to CPI, the toll actually went up before the road even opened.
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