MPs tussle over ‘big stick’ energy laws

A set of regulatory laws designed to increase oversight of energy companies to make sure they are held responsible for their actions just passed the upper house of parliament on Tuesday. Labor chose not to challenge the final vote on what has been dubbed the “big stick” legislation.

As 9News reports, the laws contain three central provisions for holding energy companies to account:

  • requiring retailers to pass on “sustained and substantial” reductions in costs to consumers;
  • penalising generators that withhold electricity contracts for the purpose of substantially lessening market competition;
  • banning generators from manipulating the spot market, for example by withholding supply to inflate prices.

Under the bill, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will have the authority to impose a variety of disciplinary measures should a company violate the laws. These include public warnings in which a company is called out by name, fines, civil penalties and divestiture orders.

Moreover, the Federal Court may impose a $10 million fine, or three times the value of the gain made by the company from the illicit practice, or 10 percent of turnover—whichever is greatest. A company may also be ordered to sell assets to a third party.

The bill was amended in the Senate to provide protection for worker entitlements should a company face divestiture. The bill is now pending final approval by the lower house, which must agree to the amendment.

While many view the bill as a step in the right direction, MPs for the Greens slammed the laws as a thinly veiled attempt to shore up the nation’s coal industry.

“How dare any of you suggest that in this moment at this time it is appropriate to be prosecuting a piece of legislation with the aim of propping up coal,” Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John said. “You are no better than a bunch of arsonists—borderline arsonists—and you should be ashamed.”

Steele-John’s remarks didn’t sit well with Labor Senator Murray Watt, who called them “beyond offensive.”

“For Senator Steele-John to refer to members of this chamber as arsonists on the very day that we are told by fire chiefs that we are seeing conditions that this country has never seen before is beyond offensive,” he said.