The head of a Victorian consumer organisation which fights for a fair go for energy and water consumers believes Victoria needs an organisation solely devoted to giving a voice to water users.
The call came as the organisation, the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre, cut the amount it spent on energy and water-related community grants in the past financial year by almost $50,000 to just $27,500.
That compared to more than $2 million spent by the Consumer Advocacy Panel, which represents energy and natural gas issues. So the centre, which receives funding support from Consumer Affairs Victoria, is shifting its focus to small grants for water-related issues and to developing a strong in-house research capability.
It describes itself as the “only consumer organisation focused specifically on the energy and water sectors”. It aims to ensure that consumers, especially those on low incomes, indigenous, disadvantaged, rural and regional consumers, have a voice in the debate about electricity, gas and water policy.
Executive officer Jo Benvenuti says that although the centre is still issuing small grants, Victorians need an organisation devoted solely to water advocacy. “There’s a real gap in consumer advocacy around water issues around Australia,” he said.
Consumer Advocacy provides a voice to consumers and looks after their long-term interests relating to fair pricing, policy regulations and legal issues. It is designed to protect them from corporate abuse.
Benvenuti says the government should either “extend the Consumer Advocacy Panel to also provide water grants” or “establish a national water advocacy panel”.
The centre, which has been campaigning for stronger consumer advocacy in the water sector for more than two years, is looking for new ways of funding its current and future water projects.
The Productivity Commission last month released the results of its inquiry into Australia’s urban water sector. That report, which made controversial recommendations including the abolition of urban water price regulation, said the Council of Australian Governments should progress implementation of measures to support consumer advocacy and research.
The Consumers’ Federation of Australia said the report strongly endorsed the need for consumer advocacy on water policy, and recognised the current arrangements were unsatisfactory.
Tom Mollenkopf , chief executive of the Australian Water Association, the national representative body for water organisations, says the first task is to define the nature of the problems water consumers faced.
Although there is an “increasing concern regarding the impact of rising utility prices on financially disadvantaged customers”, the protection levels for consumers are already very sound, he says.
“A national body is unlikely to produce recommendations that are representative of customers within any particular utility’s area of operation,” the AWA said in a submission to the Productivity Commission.
A spokesman for Don Farrell, Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water, says that all recommendations from the Commission’s report are being considered by the government.