In 2002, the Victorian Government established the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre (CUAC) to provide a consumer voice in Victoria’s newly deregulated energy markets.
As Australia’s only consumer organisation focused specifically on the energy and water, CUAC developed expertise in these sectors, producing in-depth research and evidence-based policy advice on behalf of consumers in policy and regulatory processes. Since inception, CUAC has produced over 320 submissions, administered $1.3 million in grant funding to more than 90 consumer, welfare and environment group projects, and produced 23 in-depth research reports. Some of CUAC’s key highlights are outlined below.
grant funding to more than 90 consumer, welfare and environment group projects
in-depth reports produced
Robust research and policy reports were core to CUAC’s approach to driving change for consumers. CUAC’s landmark 2014 research report Helping Not Hindering: Uncovering Domestic Violence & Utility Debt, was a catalyst for important dialogue within industry, government and the community sector, receiving media coverage and the attention of regulatory bodies. CUAC’s findings were referenced in the Royal Commission into Family Violence: An Opportunity to Promote Change and Reduce Risk.
In 2012, CUAC’s Growing Gaps: Consumer Protections and Energy Re-sellers report identified the issue of exempt-selling networks, a consequence of the rapid growth of inner city high-rise buildings excluding consumers from consumer protections and preventing retail choice. Responding to CUAC’s research and to the growth of exempt selling, the Minister for Energy and Resources announced a review of the Victorian exempt selling framework in early 2015 which is currently underway.
CUAC has also made inroads supporting consumers in retail gas markets, being one of few consumer organisations developing expertise in this area. The 2013 Making the Gas Connection: An Introduction to the Gas Sector for Consumer Organisations report provided a high-level, easily understandable introduction to the gas sector – attracting media attention and further distribution. A second report, Our Gas Challenge: The Role of Gas in Victorian Households, brought together the most current and comprehensive information about Victorian residential use of gas, with a series of policy recommendations to improve outcomes for Victorian gas consumers. The report was widely welcomed, attracting significant media attention from leading news outlets including, ABC news, Channel 7 News, Fairfax Media and News Limited.
Changing policy through advocacy
Door-to-door sales tactics by energy retailers were found in 2011/12 to be having a significant and negative impact on vulnerable consumers. CUAC worked hard during this time to ensure the consumer protections were strengthened to minimise consumer detriment. CUAC advocated on the issue of door-to-door sales, producing a range of submissions and a research report titled Minimising Consumer Detriment from Energy Door-to-Door Sales in 2012 – which evaluated the efficacy of policy approaches to this issue. Drawing attention to the poor outcomes being experienced by consumers and the potential policy and regulatory responses was a key feature of CUAC’s work. And, following ACCC legal action between 2012-2015, Origin Energy, EnergyAustralia and AGL ceased door-to-door marketing of retail energy products.
CUAC also partnered with the Consumer Action Law Centre in 2015 to seek a rule change to prevent retailers varying prices during “fixed term contracts”. While the AEMC rejected this proposal, instead introducing measures that already existed in Victoria. The Victorian Government subsequently introduced the Energy Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Act 2015, banning exit fees for fixed-term energy contracts. The CUAC/CALC evaluative report Fix it! highlighted the difficulty for consumer advocates to initiate a rule change through the AEMC process.
CUAC has long participated in policy conversation with government around the introduction of smart meters and flexible pricing. More recently, CUAC contributed to a joint submission advocating for a deferral for the introduction of contestable metering in Victoria, since nearly all Victorians have paid for a smart meter and the marginal costs of replacement would significantly outweigh the benefits for consumers. In February 2017, the Victorian government announced a deferral at least until 2021.
Improving consumer choice
In 2015, CUAC led a cross-industry working group to develop the Energy Comparator Code of Conduct (ECCC), a voluntary code of conduct to improve behaviour and public reputation of the commercial energy switching industry, after several comparators were fined by the ACCC for misleading and deceptive conduct. CUAC assisted the development of the ESC and AER’s government funded comparison sites through the findings and recommendations of the Improving Energy Market Competition through Consumer Participation report.
Empowering and informing the community
Supporting other community agencies by explaining or translating complex information relating to energy and water networks was another area of focus for CUAC. The 2015 Cost reflective pricing: Engaging with Network Tariff Reform in Victoria report receiving praise from consumer advocates and industry alike for its ability to convey complex information on network tariff reform and associated implications in simple terms.
Further assisting other community organisations and advocates to engage in the sector, CUAC’s Tariff Switching Among Older Energy Consumers report the Energyinfohub website was developed and a range of materials to enable other community organisation workers to both understand and assist vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers to reduce their energy bill.
CUAC also engaged the community directly to save energy and money through an energy literacy outreach program, where CUAC experts ran information sessions for consumers about reducing energy usage and switching to a cheaper energy tariff.
Minimising costs of essential services for consumers
A significant proportion of electricity bills are impacted by the costs of the electricity network that are passed on by distribution networks. CUAC engaged in several revenue setting processes for regulated distribution networks. In 2010-11, CUAC and Consumer Action attempted to mount a legal challenge over the costs being passed onto consumers through the Limited Merits Review. While the intervention was withdrawn due to the risk of significant damage costs being awarded against both organisations, CUAC’s Barriers to Fair Network Prices report documented the difficulty of achieving real consumer input into pricing decisions, and led to the introduction of changes to the regime, including cost protections for community organisations. CUAC has participated in the 2016-2020 revenue reset process, producing several submissions as part of the Limited Merits Review. These were referenced by both the AER and the counsel for the Minister for Energy to support their own arguments seeking to reduce costs to consumers.
Despite the importance of water as an essential service, CUAC was the only consumer organisation in Victoria funded to undertake advocacy and research relating to water policy.
CUAC has been active in water price reviews throughout the years and produced submissions on revisions to the economic framework for water in Victoria.
In 2011/12, CUAC wrote to both the Minister for Water and Chairperson of the ESC about Melbourne Water’s over-recovery of revenue relating to the desalination plant. This process resulted in these funds being returned to consumers.
Working with regulators and business to change practice
CUAC also engaged strongly with businesses to make positive changes for consumers. In November 2013, CUAC published Meaningful & Genuine Engagement: Perspectives from Consumer Advocates. This drew on the unique perspectives of 28 advocates to assists energy and water businesses, regulators and government to engage more effectively with the community and consumer advocates. The report insights were adopted by a number of distribution and water businesses and the report was listed as pre-reading material for the ENA and CISRO Consumer Engagement Handbook Workshop in September 2015.
CUAC also shed light on the experiences of aboriginal Victorians with our 2011 report Wein, Paen, Ya Ang Gim: Victorian Aboriginal Experiences of Energy and Water.
The Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria adopted on all the report’s recommendations, and two businesses committed to developing a Reconciliation Action Plan.
More recently CUAC – now CPRC – partnered with the big three energy retailers – AGL, EnergyAustralia, and Origin Energy and the three metro water retailers – Yarra Water, City West Water and South-East Water to identify and share the best practices observed within these businesses in our Building Consumer Trust project. With our new expanded remit, CPRC hopes to engage organisations outside the energy and water sector to adopt and share their own best practices.
CPRC is proud to be building on this important legacy in energy and water policy. Our expanded remit allows CPRC to deepen our research capabilities, forge new partnerships, and develop policy expertise across industry sectors, bringing much of CUAC’s philosophy with us.