On 19 February, 2015 the Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Dr John Falzon, took part in a television interview with ABC News Breakfast on the topic of people struggling with utility bills. The audio and transcript of the interview conducted by Michael Rowland, was first published on this ABC website.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: A lot of comments coming in about the power companies cutting off customers in Victoria as well and I know you’re about to have a conversation about that Michael.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Yes, we will. A big story, not just in Victoria, but right around Australia. We’re learning that Victoria’s independent energy regulator is going to review how power companies treat customers in financial hardship. A record number of people are being disconnected in the state and it’s a similar picture across other states and territories too. So, are energy companies doing all they can to accommodate those who have fallen on tough times? John Falzon is the Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society and he joins us now from Canberra. John, a very good morning to you.
DR FALZON: Good morning Michael.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: These figures obviously prove to you how big a problem this is for so many families around the country.
DR FALZON: Absolutely. In a country as prosperous as Australia, we should not be looking down the barrel of households—low income households, from aged pensioners to single mums to unemployed people to people struggling in low paid work—being excluded from something as fundamental as access to energy. It just beggars belief that in the 21st Century we should be experiencing this level of people being cut off from essential energy in their households.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: And what do you put down as the reasons? Obviously a lot of families are suffering hardships for whatever reason. How much of it do you sheet home the blame to power companies for increasing the bills?
DR FALZON: Look, energy is accessed through a market mechanism in Australia. Our simple message is this— governments must do what markets cannot. Markets are very good at producing profit, but not so great at guaranteeing access, particularly for families experiencing hardship. And so we’d ask for three things; first of all, that a strong regulatory framework is in place, so that companies are bound to do the responsible thing with people who are unable to pay their bills, rather than jumping to the point of disconnection. We want a strong set of protections for vulnerable households. Secondly, there’s a mishmash of concessions across the jurisdictions at the moment. We want to make sure the government does its role in ensuring that concessions are available to struggling households. And thirdly, again, this sounds a very strong clarion call to the federal government that for low income households, particularly those who are reliant on income support, and particularly those who are at the low end of the labour market, particularly those who are casualised— people’s income levels are clearly inadequate to deal with not just housing costs but energy costs. And so, again and again, we are calling on government to increase, for instance, the single New Start allowance by a minimum of $50 a week and to change the way it is indexed. We are calling on government to certainly walk away from the idea that the minimum wage or that penalty rates should be undermined, because this is how it flows through in the lives of struggling households. Their energy is disconnected, they face evictions and they end up amongst the numbers of the people experiencing homelessness in prosperous Australia.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Now John, I want to bring you some comments by the Energy Retailers Association, they were unable to come on the program this morning, but its boss, Cameron O’Reilly has put out this statement; he says: ‘Energy retailers only resort to disconnection as a method of last resort, and all have hardship programs available to households who are unable to pay their bills’. Cameron O’Reilly goes on to say: ‘Energy retailers are already working at a national level with the Australian Energy Regulator to improve their hardship policies and will be cooperating with the Victorian review’. John, are the energy companies, from your perspective, doing enough?
DR FALZON: Look, we’re delighted to be at the table in those discussions as to how the energy companies can in fact tailor their programs to protect people, to prevent disconnections and to allow people to make repayments in an appropriate manner. So this is a dialogue that our organisation, the St Vincent de Paul Society and others who are at the coal face of hardship and in equality in Australia are very happy to have with those companies to make sure that they reach the very highest standards of protections and fairness for struggling households.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, John Falzon from the St Vincent’s de Paul Society, thank you very much for your time this morning.
DR FALZON: My pleasure, thank you Michael.