Energy Legislation Amendment (Energy Fairness) Bill 2021 - Legislation

10 June 2021

It gives me great pleasure to rise to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (Energy Fairness) Bill 2021. I love talking about this stuff for two reasons: I love talking about fairness and how our government is passionate about delivering equality and fairness for every Victorian but also because I spent 13 years working in the energy sector, working for DNSPs—distribution network service providers. At the flick of a switch, when they get the call from the retailer, they can disconnect you. I remember the days when they had to go out to people’s homes to disconnect them, to have a look at the state of affairs—the way in which some of our poorest, most vulnerable Victorians were living. And I remember the linies would come back and they would be terribly horrified. Some of them could not disconnect them. There was domestic violence, no food, kids hardly clothed running around, drug addicts—all kinds of terrible, terrible situations in people’s homes in some of the poorest parts of our electorate and in the distribution network’s actual patch that they were responsible for.

Let me tell you, big business, retailers, distribution networks, transmission networks are in the business of making money. I worked for them for a long time, and I loved it. I loved my career there. I did lots of great things. One of the things that I got to do, working for a transmission and distribution network at the time—a couple of years ago, before entering politics—was that I had the joy of going into neighbourhoods and knocking on some doors to try and talk to customers about what they wanted as part of their energy future: the solar panels; would they be interested in having a battery connected in their local street? I remember working for a particular company, and I had the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change—here at the table—come out, I think, for the launch and the switching on of one in Mooroolbark.

A member interjected.

Ms CONNOLLY: Indeed, that was me. I was hired there because I could just speak normal language, plain English, to people in that community, because people paid a lot of money in those networks. They did not drive the types of cars they were driving in Mooroolbark. They did not speak the type of local language and could not explain things in plain English in the way in which normal people, like my mum and dad, could understand.

There is no fairness when it comes to the energy market. It is those people sitting in the ivory tower who understand everything about their industry. Do you know what else they understand? Retailers, let me tell you, understand it so well. Distribution and transmission networks, at the time when I left, were trying pretty hard to understand it, and they had a long road ahead of them, but retailers understand their customers, and a whole range of them. They understand through focused market research about how to target people to sign them up to dodgy deals.

Now, the member for Sandringham—as much as I think he is a great guy, it was like listening to a violin. I am there in my office thinking, ‘How many times have all of us had a knock at the door?’. The first thing they say—and this resonates really well with my mum, who works in aged care by the way; she has got a couple of solar panels and is always looking to find a cheaper deal—is, ‘Do you want to know how to save money on your electricity bill?’. And they say that because the first answer to that question is yes. Everyone wants to save more on their energy bill, me included. It is predatory, calculated behaviour. Now, that is not to say, as the member for Sandringham pointed out, that it is about those people doing the knock at the door—and I do not envy those kinds of people; it is a really tough job, particularly if you knock on my door, because I enjoy the conversation, I really do—breaking the law. It is about the way in which those people have been trained to have those conversations. It is predatory in the way in which it unfolds there at the front door or on the phone.

Now, the member for Wendouree just reminded me of the ‘Do not knock’ stickers that we see. We see those stickers in their thousands in our poorest, most vulnerable suburbs and streets, and the reason for that is that energy retailers have targeted those areas again and again and again. You hear it, whether you are watching the 7.30 report like me or you are watching A Current Affair like a lot of Victorians. We read it, whether it is in the Age or in the Herald Sun. We read about vulnerable people, people with disabilities, really elderly people, some people who are so lonely that the only knock at the door they get is from an energy retailer selling them something. They are happy to have a chat and they are happy to sign up to anything that these people put in front of them because they establish a relationship, a little bit of a friendly conversation and banter, a little bit of trust, and it can be quite easy to establish trust with elderly men and women who know nothing about the energy sector. They do not know how their bill is calculated. They probably do not know how much they are paying currently, but again the answer to that question, ‘Do you want to save money on your power bills?’—of course you do.

Now, the member for Sandringham talked about 1000 people being likely to lose their jobs. We are not a government that wants to see anyone lose their job. But I think what the member for Sandringham—and I will give him the benefit of the doubt—probably did not realise is we have been talking about this reform since 2018. Big business is not stupid, I say to the member for Sandringham. They are not going to waste money on rolling out telemarketers when they know we have got a government in power that is going to crack down on this. They have been transitioning to new ways to get new customers on board. Retailers make money by having more and more customers sign up with them, in whatever format. This is about protecting every Victorian—vulnerable Victorians. And, yes, vulnerable Victorians need protecting. Sometimes they cannot make a good decision—they do not know how to save money on their bills, they just know that they need to save money on their bills. But I would say to the member for Sandringham that if we have made our intentions known since 2018, this has been more than enough time for those businesses to transition across to other ways in which to market and advertise their deals. I feel like that is maybe not misleading the house—I mean, I will give him the benefit of the doubt; he probably did not know. He was probably looking too closely at other things in our election platform policy, so he did not know about that.

One of the other things I want to talk about is that big business wants to make money. They look at cutting costs. That is why I will never forget being in an ivory tower here in the CBD and people were actually excited that they could then flick a switch—to not have to send people out face to face to physically turn off the power; they could flick a switch—because it could save the business money. They could meet their KPIs. And do you know what happens in big business when you meet KPIs? When you are sitting there as a busy worker bee, working your butt off all year, you look forward to your bonus. And the people knocking at your door have KPIs and a bonus. They are incentivised to sell, sell, sell.

So when I think about the conversation around switching off people’s power at the flick of a switch and how very few of those privileged, well-paid, highly qualified and great people have a reaction to being able to actually do that, they are not thinking about protecting vulnerable Victorians. They are thinking about two things: how they will save costs and making sure they do not break the law—because the one thing about big businesses, whether they are a monopoly or they are a retailer, whether they are upstream or downstream, is that they do not want to break the law. And the reason for that? Well, there are two reasons. The first is that the business and likely they themselves will incur a financial penalty of up to $1 million. That is a really big disincentive to breaking the law. The second reason is transparent reporting, because that makes them accountable, whether it is to the state government or to the Australian Energy Regulator. Transparent reporting changes behaviour. So, yes, on having up to $1 million to fine businesses doing the wrong thing, I just cannot believe I am sitting here listening to those opposite say how that is a ridiculous thing to do. This is a wonderful bill. It builds on our fairness, and I commend it to the house.