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Eating or heating: the cost of rising electricity bills

Services increased to help low-income households, as Government solution still sought

Churches and charity groups are stepping up their services to the less fortunate in our community in light of soaring energy prices.

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Recent government discussions aimed at reducing the pressure on households did not go far enough, according to one major charity.

St Vincent de Paul NSW CEO Josh de Groot expressed concern about the recent meeting convened by Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull with the leaders of seven of Australia’s largest energy providers. De Groot described the outcomes of the meeting as “underwhelming”.

“All that was decided was to inform people of changes (to discount power plans) but not to guarantee them,” he said.

“Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg promised some tough talking, to do more to lower people’s power bills, but we haven’t seen this happen yet.

“I think they must have gone to the gym beforehand and put it all there – because nothing was left to bring to the playing field.”

“People on low incomes are faced with the decision ‘do I heat my house or pay my bills’.” – Anglicare NSW

But Christian charity Anglicare NSW said struggling to pay energy bills was an age-old problem for low fixed-income families. Yet, the organisation’s Sustainable Living manager Teresa Clark agreed the issue was becoming more serious.

“We’ve always seen people struggling to pay electricity bills, especially in winter,” she said. “People on low incomes are faced with the decision ‘do I heat my house or pay my bills’.”

De Groot said the energy figures were not in for winter but he predicted a spike come September and October which, especially for people living in accommodation with poor energy efficiency, would be even more alarming.

“We need to ask what we can do in a structured and systematic way to help low-income families,” he said.

“Eventually people can’t afford to justify their existence.” – St Vincent De Paul NSW

He suggested people on concession cards be given a discount for as long as they had the card.

“At the moment, energy retailers are offering discounts for the first 12-months of a contract,” he said. “Then people forget about them and the charges revert to the normal high tariffs. Eventually people can’t afford to justify their existence.”

He said another help would be to give incentives to landlords to provide energy-efficient accommodation; for instance, ensuring seals for windows and doors, and even providing solar power.

Clark said anecdotally the dollar value of the services Anglicare provided had increased. “Historically, $500 was a lot of money to be giving a family,” she said. “Now we are getting calls for $1000 in arrears.

“This continual rise in (energy) prices just seems like a big black hole. We can keep throwing money at it but the problem is never addressed.”

“It has become clear to us that people are going without (heating).” – Uniting Care Wodonga

Uniting Care Wodonga manager Naomi Jansen said she was aware of the increased needs in the area where she lived and worked.

She said there was little apartment rental accommodation available in their part of rural Victoria, and that the main kind of leasing opportunities were for three or four bedroom homes.

“That’s about $450-a-week rent on average, and with huge electricity bills … if people want to buy their own home they won’t even get a look in,” she said.

Jansen said Uniting provided crisis relief and emergency relief. “Generally we say to people that what you normally spend on groceries, put towards your utilities,” she said.

She added there were many dairy farmers in the area and that there was an enormous amount of electricity going through these farms. “We have some very proud people down here,” she said.

“It has become clear to us that people are going without (heating). We recently held a collection of blankets to distribute. There were 500 blankets donated and they were gone in three weeks.”

“We have to keep making noise about this to let people know there are others who are struggling.” – Uniting Care Wodonga

Clark said people were embarrassed about asking for help. “I think everybody feels it is hard to say ‘I’m struggling’,” she said. “But we know hard choices are being made every day: ‘do I put food on the table or heat my house’?

“We have to keep making noise about this to let people know there are others who are struggling.”

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