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Brotherhood co-sponsors report calling for poor to gain access to affordable, clean energy

Report calls on Federal Government to end deadlock, warns of increasing energy poverty as power charges surge

The Brotherhood of St Laurence's Damian Sullivan says: "Unless there is a nationally coordinated plan that is fair and inclusive -- and far better integration between climate, energy and social policy -- vulnerable households will be left behind."

By Mark Brolly

July 31 2017 

A report sponsored by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and two other leading independent institutions has called for people on low incomes and experiencing disadvantage to be assured of access to affordable, reliable and clean energy.

Empowering disadvantaged households to access affordable, clean energy called on the Federal Government to put people first and end the deadlock on energy transition, warning of increasing energy poverty.

The Brotherhood, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and the Climate Institute (which closed on 30 June, its remaining funds and intellectual property transferred to the Australia Institute) produced the 71-page report after consulting more than 120 community, environment and energy experts across Australia from March to June this year.

They identified energy and non-energy market policies needed to achieve five solutions to energy poverty, including cheaper clean energy, empowered consumers, improved household efficiency and productivity, stronger consumer protection and improved capacity to pay bills.

The Brotherhood’s Head of Energy and Climate Change, Mr Damian Sullivan, said action was long overdue, with his organisation aware of harrowing accounts of the effects of higher energy costs.

“As people struggle to pay their bills, many are forced to go without other basic needs to the detriment of their health,” Mr Sullivan said.

“We’ve had people in our programs who don’t have hot water because they can’t afford to get it fixed.

“Others report going to bed early so as not to put the heater on. Some families are already having their electricity or gas disconnected.”

Mr Sullivan said some of the measures recommended in the report could give immediate relief to families as well as help reduce power bills long-term through energy efficiency, installing rooftop solar and well-targeted concessions.

“Unless there is a nationally coordinated plan that is fair and inclusive - and far better integration between climate, energy and social policy - vulnerable households will be left behind,” he said.

“Australia can do better. Energy is an essential service, so we must make clean energy available and affordable for all.”

ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie, launching the report, called on Australia’s elected leaders to end the blame-shifting and politicking over energy policy.

“It’s clear we need to transition to modern clean energy in line with our Paris commitment,” Dr Goldie said. “We must also urgently relieve pressure on people who cannot cope with rising energy prices.

“There has been a fundamental failure to provide adequate measures to reduce energy stress and deliver a national coordinated stable energy and climate policy, which is a major factor in pushing up energy prices.

“Rising electricity prices are a slap in the face for households already struggling with increasing costs of living, slow wage growth and unemployment.

“Efforts to provide access to affordable, reliable and clean energy are failing and low-income and disadvantaged households are bearing the brunt.

“Governments must listen to people’s very deep concerns about energy prices and make the transition to clean energy equitable and affordable for everyone.”

Dr Goldie said incentives to make the transition to clean energy were needed and the allocation of costs for this must be equitable.

She said the Government must also urgently address energy affordability now for people on low incomes, including reviewing income adequacy, particularly for people receiving Newstart allowances and pensions, and for people on low wages.

“We already have almost three million people living in poverty in Australia.

“We need to provide urgent relief for thousands of people suffering as a result of energy stress, and map a way forward now to ensure those numbers don’t increase further.

“This is an historic opportunity for our governments to get ahead of the game and make Australia a better country for all. Federal and State governments must work together now on one of the most pressing issues of our times, by better aligning climate, energy and social policy.”

Other proposed reforms include:

  • Increasing support for energy efficiency upgrades and installation of rooftop solar for low-income households.
  • Implementing minimum energy efficiency standards on rental properties;
  • Developing a plan to manage coal generator retirement and replacement in the interests of the workers, affected communities and energy consumers; and
  • Reviewing harmful disconnection laws and the scope of hardship programs, as well as expanding and improving energy consumer protections.

The report was released only five days after Anglicare Australia told a Senate hearing that it strongly opposed the Government’s proposal to phase-out the Energy Supplement, which it said would cut income support payments for 2.2 million people (see http://tma.melbourneanglican.org.au/news/energy-supplement-cut-anglicare-190717).

Anglicare Australia’s acting Executive Director, Mr Roland Manderson, told the hearing of the Senate’s Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiring into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Ending Carbon Tax Compensation) Bill 2017 on 26 July that none of the introductory speeches that came with the legislation, nor the legislation itself, addressed the issue of adequate income or inadequate income.

“Energy prices have continued to rise at a great rate, whether or not there has been a carbon tax in place,” he said. “So all that is happening here is that money is being taken from those who have the least on the basis that a previous government called it compensation for a carbon tax.”

Responding to a question from Queensland Labor Senator Murray Watt, Mr Manderson said: “We are talking about hardship. I think that many people in Australia who don't experience hardship imagine that poverty is just a relative term. I would say that, for people on these lowest incomes, poverty is an absolute experience. There is hardship which is destructive that people – they and their family – experience… To take away an amount from the already incredibly small income of a proportion of the population is simply to compound the social and health problems that those people in our community experience. This shows, firstly, that we have a government and a society that are happy that some people get left behind and, secondly, that we are foolish in that we are then investing in greater need across our society rather than… investing in opportunities for people so they don't get left behind.”