Federal and state government energy ministers are using a new review process to gag unfavourable reports on energy policy, according to consumer advocacy groups.
In a new directive issued last month, independent consumer advocacy groups have been ordered to send their energy policy reports to the Ministerial Council of Energy – a COAG group comprising of state and federal energy ministers – for review before publication.
In a statement issued to potential grant applicants on 29 June, the MCE have told the Panel that the review process “will not lead to any form of censorship of Panel‐funded reports” and would only relate to “technical and factual data”.
However, consumer groups are not convinced, labelling the decision a “direct affront” to the independence of the Panel and that it would “stifle advocacy”.
Gavin Dufty, the manager of policy research at St Vincent De Paul, told Crikey that the decision was “unworkable” and that it could “compromise the independence of the Panel itself”.
“It could be quite interventionist in my view. If the political parties get wind of an issue then they can put pressure on the Panel,” he told Crikey. “Are the ministers themselves and their political advisers going to be privy to these reports?”
Reports are funded by the Consumer Advocacy Panel, an independent body which grants funding for research into electricity and natural gas markets. In the past the advocacy reports have been made public on the Panel’s website, now they must be subjected to the new review process.
The directive comes after a St Vincent De Paul report into the implementation of ‘smart meters’ last year was met with a rebuff from the Victorian government for containing factual errors.
“We had put the decimal place in the wrong spot. They used that to put pressure on us and to manage the issues associated with smart meters.”
Peter Batchelor, Victorian Minister for Energy and Resources, told Crikey that taxpayers fund the Panel through their energy bills and “have a right and an expectation that the Panel’s funding is used to produce accurate advocacy reports…These changes came about after some examples of recent reports, including the St Vincent de Paul report that had arithmetic errors that were corrected by the relevant organisation.”
Batchelor was adamant that the procedural changes were not a gag on the independence of the Panel, telling Crikey that they were simply designed to ensure reports were of the “highest quality”.
But social services groups are yet to be convinced by the decision. In letters sent to the MCE this month, both the Consumer Action Law Centre and Australian Council of Social Service slammed the decision for infringing on the Panel’s independence.
According to the Australian Council of Social Service, the directive will “severely hamper advocates’ ability to effectively and independently scrutinise government policy in the Australian energy market”.
Both groups pointed out that the Panel was legislated by the Australian Energy Market Commission Establishment Act 2004, which makes provisions for the body’s independence.
Clause 31 of the Act states that:
“The Panel is not subject to direction by the AEMC or the MCE in the performance of its functions.”
Janine Rayner, a senior policy officer on energy at Consumer Action Law Centre, believes that the decision is a “ridiculous approach” and that it “will have an impact on the Panel’s independence and also the independence of consumer voices.”
“We’re worried about the definition of facts and how they may take different shapes and different forms under reviews for purposes which may suit the MCE.”
A spokesperson for Martin Ferguson, Federal Minister for Resources and Energy and the chair of the MCE, told Crikey that the process was required to ensure the Panel would be “taken seriously by policy makers, including energy ministers.”
But according to Gavin Dufty, the new process was actually about governments “managing information” in the face of upcoming state and federal elections.
“Energy prices are key issues in elections and governments are keen to manage issues as best they can,” he told Crikey. “People with power are now exercising that power.”