Thursday, 1 June 2023


Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023

David DAVIS, Tom McINTOSH, Melina BATH, Sheena WATT, David LIMBRICK, Bev McARTHUR, Renee HEATH, Ingrid STITT

Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023

Second reading

Debate resumed on motion of Jaclyn Symes:

That the bill be now read a second time.

David DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan) (10:39): I am pleased to rise and make a contribution to the Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023 and to indicate clearly that the opposition will support this bill. We think that there are reasonable grounds for this bill, and we think it will add some positive steps forward.

Now, I should say that the background of this is important to understand in the first instance. The June and October 2021 severe storms caused extreme damage. This chamber heard much about that, and Ms Burnett-Wake was actually the one who raised the issue repeatedly in this chamber, pointing to damage and outages.

A member: Where is she?

David DAVIS: Well, I actually think she did a very good job in raising these matters, and as a former councillor she actually had very good links with the council in the local area. I think with respect to her work on this, even your people would be highly respectful. I think in this circumstance, given this was an emergency set of matters, we sought to act in a bipartisan way and to support government activities but also the activities of the energy companies.

To take a step away from the bipartisan position now that sufficient time has certainly elapsed, the government was slow in responding to much of this, and there were people without energy for a very long period of time. I am not an expert on the Dandenongs and the damage that occurred up there, but I can tell you that many people have raised with me the long delays in getting reconnection to energy suppliers. This was not a well-managed crisis. It was a crisis that was impactful. It was something where greater preparation could have been done beforehand. I think a myriad of issues came to the fore.

Even longstanding people in the area where the impact of the outages and the storms were at their greatest point to the fact that lines came down that had not come down prior, even in very significant storms. It was in part the direction which the weather came from and the long period of soaking that impacted it. There are a lot of layers in this, and I am not going to claim to be the expert on it, but what I will say is I think that there are legitimate questions still about how that emergency response operated. There are legitimate questions about the role of the energy companies. I do think by and large they tried to do the right thing, and they did undertake many of the steps that are advocated in this bill voluntarily. I think that is quite important to put on record.

The bill fundamentally establishes a directions power, an ability to direct on a wide front to ensure that there are responses, and to that extent we have not quibbled about the objectives that are in this bill. I did speak to the minister before, and I indicated that there are a number of questions that we would like to see responded to about spending on electricity supply and repairs and related matters through that period. I understand the minister may well be trying to provide some assistance with that matter, and that would probably expedite the matter and mean that we probably do not need a committee stage.

Just to recap the storm, 68,000 customers were without power after 72 hours, and 9000 customers were still without power seven days after the event. There were some very laggard case studies that people are aware of. Nearly 24,000 customers remained off supply 72 hours after the second incident in October, and 2500 customers were still without power after seven days. These were prolonged, they were unacceptable, and I think we need a better focus.

The experience of these storms highlighted the limits of getting critical information from electricity distribution businesses to support the relief activities and programs for customers. A substantial external review was undertaken to identify priority reform measures and policies to enable distribution businesses to mitigate the risk or better respond to prolonged power outages. In August 2021 the government commissioned the electricity distribution network resilience review in response to the storms of June 2021. The expert panel found that the participation of distribution businesses in the emergency response and recovery was not delivering positive outcomes for impacted customers. Victorian customers were provided with mixed messaging on power restoration times – it is clear there was quite a lot of confusion – insufficient relief measures and were disregarded during the emergency operation.

The bill does provide the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action with a new power to direct distribution businesses where there is an emergency power outage. It sets up penalties of more than $200,000.

There has been consultation broadly on this point, but in short the opposition will support the bill. Our concern is to see that customers have a fair shake here and that where there are outages the power is back on quickly and where there is significant disruption there is proper relief and support and a fast-tracked restoration of power. To the extent that this bill assists with that, we are supporting it.

Tom McINTOSH (Eastern Victoria) (10:45): I am very happy to stand and speak today on energy because, at its centre, energy is for people. It is for all Victorians – all Australians indeed, as we have interconnected networks – and it is very disappointing that over recent decades energy has been used as a political football. Today’s bill and the amendments within it are in response to extreme weather events, and I will come to those later. I do want to take some time to look more broadly at energy. I am disappointed that those who should take a greater interest in this issue, like the Greens, are not in the chamber. They talk about being passionate about energy. I do not think it is for people’s sake; I think it is from a disconnected ideology. I agree that we have got to act on climate, and this government is doing that and it is something I am passionate about, but within that there has to be a passion and a fundamental belief that what we do is going to benefit people. I am also disappointed the Nationals are not here, given how big the transition is that is occurring in Gippsland.

David Davis: I think the Nationals are intending to speak. They have informed me on this.

Tom McINTOSH: I am informed they are intending to speak, so I will acknowledge that. That is good. As I said, energy is essential to our lives. Energy has played a massive part in bringing our civilisation – the quality of people’s lives – to where it is now. We need to acknowledge the history, but we also need to look to the future. Fossil fuels have played a massive part in getting us to where we are today, and we need to acknowledge that and we need to be thankful for that. We need to be thankful to the workers who have done the work to deliver the quality of life and the opportunities that we have all had through energy generation and what has been a reliable and affordable source of energy that has assisted us in numerous ways.

But we also need to acknowledge that our climate, our atmosphere, cannot continue to have carbon dioxide emitted into it. This is why we have had to make the changes to our energy generation, and I am proud to be part of a government that have made that front and centre of what we do. It is also why I think we are in government. I think the public have acknowledged the work, have acknowledged the hard yards that we have done, particularly this government, in the last two decades. We had the Greens stall federal action on emission reductions – we have probably had hundreds of tonnes of emissions occur since that date – and particularly federally we had the coalition government take us backwards and stall things for the best part of a decade.

David Davis: On a point of order, Acting President, Mr McIntosh is talking very broadly about energy policy. He is talking about the energy mix and so forth. These are all very interesting topics, but this is actually a very narrow bill. It specifically sets up emergency powers and emergency directions powers. It does not canvass targets, the previous energy mix and the future energy mix and the federal Parliament’s role in this. We have now got him talking about the federal Parliament. I think it is a long, long way from the narrow bill, which is actually focused.

Michael Galea: On the point of order, Acting President, I believe the member is being relevant to the topic.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (John Berger): I would just direct the member back to the topic, if he could.

Tom McINTOSH: Absolutely. In talking about energy distribution systems I will not talk about political parties or which government, federal or state, because I think people know that a particular group had 20 different policies – they would dream them up on their way into media conferences. I do not even know what that averages out to – one every quarter or something. What we are talking about today is capacity to deliver energy into people’s homes, and to do that you need very, very clear understanding, which is what this legislation is doing. It is making it very clear to those in the energy-providing game what is expected of them, and that is what governments are meant to do. I am sorry, Mr Davis, but there has been a vacuum for the last decade nationally about what we are supposed to do.

I am going to get to offshore wind in a minute because supply is absolutely critical to being able to deliver to people’s homes, as is the network that we deliver on. When we talk about storm events, which – I know you are not going to like this – are intensified by climate change, and getting power to people’s homes, we need the distribution network to do that. We need those distributors to understand what their obligations are, we need the retailers to understand what their obligations are, we need everyone to understand what the obligations are. If we are going to deliver the capacity of power that Victoria needs, if we want to deliver the power that consumers need, that manufacturers need, that our hospitals need and that everybody in Victoria needs, we all need to have a very clear understanding of what it is that every player across the system needs to do. And that is what the minister has done, not just now but for years.

David Davis: On the point of order, Acting President, the main purpose of the bill is to amend the Electricity Industry Act 2000 to empower the head of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action to give directions to distribution companies to mitigate the effects on their customers of disruptions to the distribution or supply of electricity that are class 2 emergencies under the Emergency Management Act 2013. It is a very narrow bill. It is an important bill and we are supporting it. But the member is going on a frolic. It is a very interesting policy – I would be happy to have the debate at some other point – it is just not about this bill.

Michael Galea: On the point of order, Acting President, I believe the member was being directly relevant to the issue of energy and energy disruption.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (John Berger): Could I direct the member back to the bill, please.

Tom McINTOSH: Absolutely. Extreme weather events, which we know are becoming more frequent, mean that we absolutely have to be clear on what is expected of every single player along the energy system. It is the whole system because your generators need to understand what the distributors are doing and the distributors need to talk to the retailers and the retailers need to communicate with households, which is exactly what this bill is about: it is about retailers communicating with households. We had households – as you pointed out, Mr Davis – households that were without energy. We need to make sure (a) that households have energy in extreme storm events and (b), if they do not, that they understand when they are going to get that power back on. Mr Davis, are you okay with that? Do you agree with that?

The whole system has to work together. This is why I was saying Minister D’Ambrosio and the Victorian government have had a plan, and have a plan going forward, to deliver energy to Victorians. I have talked about generation and distribution and it is a big task. It is a big, big task. Part of that is storage, and that is why we have the biggest storage battery in the Southern Hemisphere here in Victoria. It is about how we deal with homeowners. I heard those opposite yesterday; I think they were talking about electric vehicles and laughing about them. I am not sure if they are aware that rooftop solar – and rooftop solar comes into this because consumers need –

Melina Bath: On a point of order, Acting President, rooftop solar panels are not part of this particular legislation, though we welcome them. So I ask you to call him back on relevance.

Ingrid Stitt: On the point of order, Acting President, I think there is a bit of latitude that is given to members in their second-reading contributions on a range of different bills. I do note that those opposite have been known to stray from the very narrow cast of particular bills on occasion, and I do believe that Mr McIntosh is broadly being relevant to the issues around energy distribution and disruption and the importance of supply for consumers.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (John Berger): I draw the member back to the bill.

Tom McINTOSH: Ms Bath, you are telling me that solar has nothing to do with this. I do not know, have you ever been camping? Have you ever seen people with solar panels? When people’s energy is down, they can use other forms of energy generation. That might be a generator fuelled by diesel, or it might be solar panels that they are using to charge batteries behind the meter or whatever it might be, so it is all interconnected. This is what I am talking about. And this is why I am saying, in terms of the minister and this government, this is part of the work and the plan that the government has to ensure that the whole energy system delivers for Victorian consumers.

When we talk about delivering for Victorian consumers, I can understand why the opposition cannot comprehend it. They would privatise the air that we breathe if they could. Energy is a fundamental need of consumers, particularly people who have health concerns – they need to know absolutely that their energy supply will be delivered to their home. This is what these amendments do. I thank Mr Davis for his recognition of the amendments in the bill and what they do, but I will just keep coming back to the point that the broader points do matter. That is why the Victorian public have seen something like the SEC and they have backed it in. They understand we need to act on climate; they understand we need an energy supply. That is why offshore wind sat on the federal energy minister’s desk for three years, going nowhere. We needed regulations for a new industry. Those opposite talk about bringing in nuclear, but they stalled offshore wind for years.

Anyway, now we are getting on with that. We are setting up the framework. We are making the plan to deliver offshore wind so we have base load power to support this state. That is what I am talking about. I am sure those opposite would think that energy efficiency has nothing to do with it. If the power goes out and people have the ability to keep their food cool and everything frozen in their freezer, they can last longer. If their home has better energy efficiency, they can go longer without power and they can use less power. I think the mindset is that we should try and get people to use more power so we can get more money out of them that can be sent to wherever it wants to go. We are committed to ensuring that Victorians (a) are able to use less energy if they want to and (b) can do so cost-effectively.

I was just about to say, back to this sort of ideological opposition to renewables, that it has been government investment that has allowed solar to be the cheapest form of energy. It used to be $100 a watt. Now we are talking tens of cents, because it was backed. And now it is off the leash – we have the highest per capita installation of solar on rooftops in the world in Australia, because we have backed it and we have believed in it. It is supporting consumers to bring down their energy costs, and it is supporting all of us to bring down our emissions. In Victoria last year I think it was 36 per cent of energy that came from renewables. That is incredible.

So on the point of the legislation and the bill, I wholeheartedly support what is being done here to support and protect Victorian consumers and to give very, very clear guidelines to retailers and to generators about what they need to do – as we have done in other areas over time, particularly around hardship and other matters – so that there is a clear understanding that when these extreme events occur Victorians will have energy and if they do not, they will be clearly communicated with about what they need to plan to do to get through until energy is reconnected and they have the energy they need for their homes and their families.

Melina BATH (Eastern Victoria) (11:01): I am pleased to rise this morning to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023, and doing so gives me an opportunity to reprosecute the issue that really brought about this legislation and to come into Parliament and discuss some of the important issues that affect my Eastern Victoria Region.

From a historical perspective the rationale behind this legislation was a review that was Victorian government commissioned, and it was commissioned in August 2021 post the shocking and devastating storm event that hit in June 2021. It was the electricity distribution network resilience review, and I note and pay thanks to my lower house colleague Danny O’Brien, the member for Gippsland South, for his continued advocacy post those incredible storms that really devastated our region considerably and for him asking for such a review to occur in the first place. I am glad the government, through this and other advocacy, saw the sense to have this review. The review was how the distribution businesses – in our case in Eastern Victoria Region AusNet Services, and others around the state – could improve network preparedness and response to prolonged power outages during storm events and strengthen community resilience for those prolonged power outages. It certainly is easier said than done.

If I can reflect on the storm of that time – I remember it very, very clearly – it was Wednesday 9 June, and we were sitting in Parliament during that time period. In fact I went to bed, and the storm was raging in Melbourne. However, my poor community in Eastern Victoria Region and others – particularly in the Dandenongs where they were quite smashed as well – suffered torrential rain and flooding. I know and I have spoken many times about the flooding events that occurred on Traralgon Creek and many others, but that decimated over 300 homes, community assets and infrastructure in the Traralgon area. I know one family woke up and their TV was floating on their lower floor.

I have also made comment on a number of occasions about the lack of proper – there may have been monitoring – conversation. Government-owned agencies – Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) ‍– actually failed through incident control to provide that information in a timely manner, but that was once under the control of the Latrobe City Council.

I want to pay homage to all of the councils in Eastern Victoria Region who responded so wonderfully. I know that there are still clean-ups occurring, for road slips and damage from trees falling, even now when I speak to some of those local councils who are doing that clean-up work so many years later. It is an ongoing process, and I recognise that, for them. I also want to put on record my sincere thanks to the first responders – to our SES, to the CFA, to the native timber industry and the plantation timber industry – for their service in using their machinery and their expertise and skills to clean away roads. Sometimes there were contract workers, but there were other workers that came out and just provided that work in a volunteer capacity using their machinery and skills. There is a section up in Yinnar South, and we were there with them, a safe distance away, while they opened up these vital links, these small roads, to get people in and out of this area.

Indeed, too, the local farmers had chainsaws and machinery and tractors out. I drove through South Gippsland and Loves Lane near Dumbalk, and when you looked across the landscape it looked like a terrible set of Gengar that had just wrong. There were trees over roads and trees smashing fences and the like. Of course trees fall, and they fall on powerlines as well.

To give the context of these power outages, there were dwellings and homes and businesses without power. 68,000 of them were without power after three days, 9000 were without power for up to seven days and 2000 for longer than a month. That was an extremely challenging time for those people without power – without heat and without telecommunications. The longer you are without power, the less you have the opportunity to charge your phones. If you are trapped in your home and cannot get out, then it really is a very compromising situation for people.

I spoke with farmers, including one of my local South Gippsland farmers. I heard the previous member talking about power generation. I know many farmers had to purchase or hire – under great pressure ‍– back-up power to run their farms and to run their milking machines. Some were able to hire them quickly, at considerable cost – around $8000 for a very short period of time. Others of course did have the ability to use their farm machinery for that. When there are really big milking sheds you just cannot run them from the back of a tractor. There was a wonderful case in Won Wron where one farmer actually walked her whole herd down to be milked by a neighbour. That was a great kindness in such terrible circumstances, and I thank them for their kindness. Preparedness is important, but it also comes at a cost. I know the farmer in South Gippsland spoke about the cost to animal welfare as well.

There are other examples, and I have spoken in this house on them. A lady on the Grand Ridge Road, a beef cattle farmer, was trapped for nine days without power or telephone. It highlights the loss of this to the community. It also goes to the point about the effect on our regional businesses. A lovely couple, Michael and Alexandra Boka, are at Boolarra, and they grow berries – blackberries, raspberries and the like – for restaurants. They have rather significant freezers to freeze their berries so that they can take them to market. Unfortunately, because they were out of power for a long time, that stock melted and was destroyed. So it has that economic impact.

Also, I would like to put in congratulations and a thankyou to Derek Walton, who is my go-to at AusNet Services. I am sure he did not sleep for three weeks solid, and they did their very best. When trees go over lines – and there is a breadth of transmission lines across Eastern Victoria Region – it is so hard to find out where they are and where those connections are.

Going back to the review, the review found that customers were provided with mixed messages on power restoration times and insufficient relief measures as well. The review set out recommendations for improving distribution businesses and their preparedness for responses to prolonged power outages from storms and extreme weather events. I am really pleased that this government-requested review had recommendations. I can compare it to another review that I have commented on in this house on a number of occasions. My supreme disappointment was that there was another review on these storms called the June 2021 Extreme Weather Event Community Report, which had 98 pages and 10 pages of photos, with lots of people interviewed, but only ‘learnings’. I do not know about you, but ‘learnings’ sound fine when you are talking in football parlance, but we need direction and we need recommendations. I was very disappointed to see that that did not have recommendations. The government needs to act, as it is today, on recommendations. There are many great and wonderful people in the EMV, but I think it was derelict in its duties not to have proper recommendations about how to serve our community better in terms of monitoring, in terms of action and communication and in terms of after response.

The purpose of the legislation is to amend the Electricity Industry Act 2000 to empower the head of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action, in this case, to give directions to distribution companies to mitigate the effects on their customers of disruptions – and I have spoken at length about those disruptions – to the distribution or supply of electricity in cases of specified emergencies. How this will assist people getting their power back I am yet to be convinced of, but we shall see. The bill also amends the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target Act 2007 in relation to payments of fees to allow the minister to again directly set fees for the Victorian energy upgrades program instead of having the fees prescribed under regulation. It seems a little bit like taking something from column A and putting it in column B; however, let us see. The bill also amends the Essential Services Commission Act 2001 in relation to the amendments being made to that act by the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target Amendment Act 2022 for the enforcement of the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target Act by the Essential Services Commission.

While I have referenced the Essential Services Commission, only recently the commission confirmed that the new default offer set for 2023–24 will result in an average price increase across Australian households of $352 per annum. This seems to be on the back of increases that hurt people every time they open their power bills. I am sure so many thousands of Victorians shake their heads in frustration and concern as to how they are going to pay their power bills. The ESC also spoke about an average increase of $752 for small businesses. At a time when we have incredible pressure from taxes, from rate hikes and, as we have just seen today, from a decreasing retail market where people because they are under stress are curtailing their spending, this is a concern. We have seen on average a 25 per cent increase in power prices under Daniel Andrews. So we are struggling – there is no doubt about it – under Daniel Andrews. We are sending our children to school, and I am sure there are many families who are concerned about how they going to pay these electricity bills.

In summing up, fundamentally this bill creates a directions power. Firstly, there is a directions power in relation to the provision of information, there is a directions power in relation to relief services and activities and there is a directions power in relation to the provision of relief payments. The Nationals will support this bill because we want to see an improvement in the responses to and the outcomes of these storm events, which unfortunately occur very severely in Eastern Victoria Region.

I would just put on record my interest in Mr McIntosh’s comments before about the importance of renewables and solar panels et cetera. While I wholeheartedly endorse renewables – solar panels, wind turbines et cetera – where they are competitive and where they can make a difference to people’s lives, what he failed to mention is that unless you are a household that is completely off the grid and self-sufficient, you still need transmission lines. You still need to be connected to the grid in order for your power to flow and go. If these issues that we have spoken about occur and power goes down for a prolonged period of time, you are still going to be affected.

I would like to again thank all those people who worked so magnificently during the storms in June 2021 and highlight the fact that the government has still got some outstanding issues it needs to fix in terms of infrastructure that has been left neglected as a result of these. They seem to pick targets to fund incredible amounts of money to and then neglect people in my Eastern Victoria Region. But with that, the Nationals are in favour of this bill.

Sheena WATT (Northern Metropolitan) (11:15): I rise to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023, which is a much-needed bill that although administrative in nature deals with significant energy policy priorities for the government. This bill amends the Electricity Industry Act 2000 and provides a directions power for the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action – DEECA as I understand it is referred to as – to allow them to direct electricity distribution businesses to provide information and contribute to relief efforts following a mass power outage event. This will mitigate the impact of prolonged power outages on homes and businesses in the event of another storm. The second component of the bill will make technical amendments to confirm the Essential Services Commission’s enforcement and consumer protection powers in relation to the Victorian energy upgrades program.

In June and October 2021 Victoria experienced two extreme storms, which caused unprecedented damage to our electricity network. The June storm caused the largest electricity outage in the state’s history. At its peak there were nearly 250,000 households and businesses without power. However, this was soon surpassed by the number of outages caused by the storm in October of that same year. At the peak of the October storm more than 525,000 households – nearly a quarter of all Victorian homes – were left without power. Both storms caused extensive damage but were different in their geographic spread across our state. The damage caused by the June storm was largely concentrated around the Dandenongs and required an almost total rebuild of the network in some very difficult terrain. The October storm affected a much larger area, with prolonged outages experienced in western Victoria, the Mornington Peninsula and the Gippsland area. The storms highlighted the vulnerability of our electricity distribution network to extreme weather, and we know that climate change will only drive more extreme weather events, further threatening our network.

The impacts were also made worse by the inadequate response from the privatised electricity distribution businesses responsible for the network. They were largely unprepared for power outages of this scale. For example, they provided inadequate return-to-service times, which meant that residents could not plan things like alternative accommodation with any certainty. This is unacceptable for people who are already dealing with the loss of power. This legislation will ensure that the Secretary of DEECA will have the authority to direct the private distribution businesses to provide necessary information, assist in relief efforts and administer government relief payments.

The catalyst behind these extreme weather events is climate change, and I am proud to be part of the Andrews Labor government, which is a world leader in climate action. Make no mistake, our renewable energy target of 95 per cent by 2035 is world leading. You will struggle to find a jurisdiction on the globe that is decarbonising faster than Victoria. With our emissions reduction target of 75 to 80 per cent by 2035, this builds on our commitment to net zero emissions by 2045.

This is on top of one of the most exciting aspects of this government’s agenda, the SEC. Labor is bringing it back. With the cost of living rising and higher energy prices, action is needed to push down electricity prices, and the SEC will put the power back in the hands of Victorians. Even more exciting is that it will be 100 per cent powered by renewable energy, helping to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. It will also create 59,000 jobs for Victorians.

We are also investing in 100 neighbourhood batteries to be installed across Victoria, a really new and emerging area of the electricity market if you will. This creates localised energy storage, including in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. I know from my many conversations within my community that climate change is to many the single biggest issue of our time, and to be a part of a government that is committed to taking action is heartening. This is in no small part thanks to the tireless efforts of the Minister for Energy and Resources Minister D’Ambrosio, who has an incredible amount to be proud of as she fights every day to make Victoria a global leader in climate action.

The fact is you cannot rely on the privatised power companies to do the right thing, because they will always put profit ahead of people. There are three things that the directions power in this bill enables. Firstly, if the information the power companies are providing to either customers or the government is not adequate, particularly in relation to restoration time, the secretary can step in to improve the quality and flow of information. Secondly, if the distribution companies are required to attend community information sessions to provide information to locals, the secretary can direct them to do so. To be absolutely clear, the actions covered by the directions power will not divert crews from any repair and restoration works, because our priority will remain reconnecting households and businesses to power as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so. Finally, the secretary can direct the power companies to administer relief payments on behalf of the government.

Following both storms in 2021 the Andrews Labor government stepped in and provided affected households and businesses with a prolonged power outage payment. The $1680 payment was made available to any household that was without power for more than seven days, allowing people to find alternative accommodation, replace food and cover any other expenses that they may have incurred. The payment was administered successfully by the power companies on behalf of the government. The directions power will formalise this arrangement, ensuring that any relief payments made by the government are administered swiftly and effectively to provide affected residents with that direct financial assistance.

This bill before us continues the Andrews Labor government’s record on strengthening our power network against bushfires and storms. In response to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission we have implemented a range of programs and technologies to increase the resilience of our power network. This includes the rollout of the rapid earth fault current limiter technology, which effectively acts as giant safety switches across the network. Forty-four out of 45 of these rapid earth fault current limiter technology things – they are new to me, I must confess – were installed by 1 May this year, with the final installation to be completed by 1 November, ahead of the bushfire season.

Large-scale undergrounding of powerlines is largely prohibitively expensive and impractical, particularly in our forested areas like the Dandenongs, but where possible we have identified some high-risk lines on small sections of the network that could be undergrounded. Through the powerline bushfire safety program we have undergrounded 700 kilometres of bare wire and private overhead lines, and in direct response to the storms we have provided $7.5 million for crucial backup power systems in 24 towns across the state. Working with local councils, we have identified communities most at risk of storm-related power outages and are funding systems comprised of batteries and rooftop solar for selected community buildings. These buildings will act as relief hubs in the event of a prolonged power outage. We know just how important these relief hubs can be. They provide a place for residents to heat food, charge devices and shower when the power is out.

The Victorian energy upgrades program was one of the earliest energy policy initiatives introduced by the Andrews Labor government. The program has been a massive success, saving households and businesses thousands of dollars, reducing energy use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since being established in 2009, 2.3 million households and businesses have taken advantage of the program, saving them on average $110 and $3700 respectively on their energy bills annually. Even those who do not participate in the program will save on their bills, with households saving $150 and businesses saving $870 over the next 10 years because of lower wholesale energy prices and reduced network expenditure. Across the life of the program we have reduced emissions by over 80 million tonnes since 2009, which is the equivalent of taking 24 million cars off the road for a year. What an extraordinary number.

The Victorian energy upgrades program is regulated by the Essential Services Commission. The second component of the bill before us today will make technical amendments to confirm the Essential Services Commission’s recently strengthened enforcement and consumer protection powers in relation to the program.

We strengthened the Essential Services Commission’s powers through the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target Amendment Act 2022 and are now ensuring consistency between the act and the Essential Services Commission Act 2001. Strong enforcement and consumer protections will ensure that the Victorian energy upgrades program is able to continue to deliver energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions while providing assurances that the independent umpire remains the tough cop on the beat, as they say.

I do not have much more to say, but in concluding my remarks I will just say that although administrative in nature – and that has been brought up by some of the speakers before us today – this bill drives significant energy policy changes by the government for the times when Victorians need them most. I commend the bill to the house.

David LIMBRICK (South-Eastern Metropolitan) (11:26): I rise to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023. This bill does two main things: one is it gives the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action head effectively an emergency directions power, and also, as has been noted, it strengthens some of the regulatory controls on the Victorian energy upgrade program. I will tackle each of these things separately. Firstly, the way that the government talks about our energy network you would think that privatisation of many of the energy assets resulted in some sort of evil capitalist free market, free from regulations and free from controls, and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact it is difficult to find many other markets where the government interferes more than it does in the energy market, and it is an absolute mess.

We are talking about the failure of distribution infrastructure. If the government were serious about reducing failures in distribution infrastructure, maybe they would look at minimising the amount of distribution infrastructure that exists. But instead what we are seeing is infrastructure being crisscrossed all over the state – very complicated and new infrastructure, much of it, not just transmission lines but things like condensers, batteries and all of this sort of infrastructure. The more infrastructure you have, the more points of failure you have. That is very obvious to anyone inside or outside this place. Maybe what the government should have done is listen to some of the submissions to the 2019 nuclear inquiry which actually talked about transmission infrastructure. Two of the most excellent submissions on this point were actually from the CFMEU and the AWU, and they pointed out the fact –

Bev McArthur: Outstanding individuals.

David LIMBRICK: Yes, they were very good and very technically competent. What they said was that we should maximise the use of existing infrastructure and install nuclear production facilities where we currently have coalmines and reuse that. That would be cheap, not like the expensive stuff that we are putting all over the state.

What we are proposing here is not freeing up the market more but having more market interference by giving this directions power. I saw how emergency powers were used by this government over the last few years, and frankly I am not impressed. I am very sceptical that providing more emergency powers over these companies is going to somehow fix things when an emergency happens. In fact I am concerned that some of these things, like forcing them to provide relief et cetera, might actually force these companies to reconsider investment, to increase their risk assessment of the government interfering in their business and to actually increase prices. I am quite concerned about that.

I will not be supporting this bill, on the basis that we are providing these new emergency powers. I point out that it is very concerning to me that we are providing the department head with emergency controls over companies right before the government have indicated that they will be entering this same market themselves with their SEC, which I am calling the ‘socialist energy commission’. They are entering the market in competition with these same companies that they will have emergency powers over. What could possibly go wrong? This is nuts.

I will get onto the other thing which is a personal bugbear of mine: the Victorian energy upgrades program. This bill is strengthening regulatory compliance with this program because it has been a mess, frankly. What this program needs is not better regulation; this program needs to be abolished outright. It is an absolute waste of taxpayer money. The idea is that you provide these items to households and they will improve their energy efficiency et cetera. If there was a real investment case for anything, guess what, consumers would buy it themselves if they were well informed. I have got no problem with the government informing people about new products on the market that might save them money. That is a fine thing. But this has been running for many, many years – I have received some of these things myself. I remember many years ago some guy knocked on my door and gave me this thing that was meant to shut down my television set when it was in power-saving mode – it was meant to shut it down so that it saved a little bit of power when it was on stand-by. Everyone I know in my area got one of those things and not a single person ended up using them because they did not function correctly. The government of course clocked up their carbon savings, all this energy saved that never actually happened.

Another one was they were sending out balloons – if people have a chimney that they do not use they can stick a balloon up their chimney and it will stop the draught coming down. That is a wonderful idea. But lots of these balloons popped. And, guess what, because the government had interfered in the market, because the government had given these things away for free, no-one sold them – you could not buy a replacement because who is going to sell a product when the government is competing with them by providing it for free. Let us not even get started on these fridges that were sent out to businesses. What an absolute joke. This program needs to be abolished as soon as possible. It is an absolute shambles. Thinking that strengthening regulations is somehow going to fix it – it has been around for ages now and it has been a mess for years. Just get rid of it. That is my position on this bill. I will be opposing this bill.

Bev McARTHUR (Western Victoria) (11:32): In rising to discuss the Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023 I want first to put on record my dissatisfaction with the government’s severe truncation of the scrutiny process for this legislation. This is far from the first time. This bill is relatively uncontroversial, but it is symptomatic of a government with no regard for Parliament which sidelines the opposition, general public and affected stakeholders. Rushed legislation is bad legislation. It removes the ability for any outside involvement in the legislative process and inevitably will lead to errors. And it is unnecessary.

Any properly run business, organisation or government should be able to process non-urgent matters such as this in a carefully programmed manner. Before we even read a word, this bill shows the incompetence of the government and its disregard for due process. Despite that, the content is not actively damaging. As we have heard, its intent is to assist and require the provision by electricity distribution companies of better information and consistent relief to customers affected by power outages. In fact the very straightforward nature of the bill makes me question its necessity. I know this government is addicted to increasing ministerial power, but having legislation to direct businesses to do what they already do seems questionable. Power cuts cause enormous inconvenience to customers, and in prolonged emergency situations they can be seriously damaging. But I have heard no suggestion that power companies did anything other than their best in the circumstances to communicate with and support their customers. The constraint here, the very problem here, is not a lack of legislation, it is the power distribution network itself. That is the problem, and that, sadly, is what this bill does nothing to address.

We are told that the genesis of this legislation was the June and October 2021 storms, where Victorians went for days or sometimes weeks without power – of course it was all the fault of climate change. I am afraid that the biggest problem faced was not lack of communication or lack of relief, it was lack of electricity. This bill is designed to pick up the pieces when there has been an outage. I do not oppose that, but it would be far better for this government to give more thought to stopping outages in the first place. We hear that adverse weather events like fires, floods and storms will become increasingly frequent and severe in coming years. Yet the government is directing its efforts at recovery measures, not those which prevent the emergency in the first place.

I have long argued that we should invest for the long term in our electricity distribution. Undergrounding distribution at a local level provides far better resilience and protection. These lower voltage short-distance lines which transmit power to end customers can easily be put underground; in fact, they very often not only are but have to be. For new developments or on farms, for instance – as I know only too well, because it is compulsory for all lines to go underground if you are a farmer and you pay that enormous cost – new powerlines must be put underground. So we are compulsorily made to put our power underground, but the government, it appears, is not.

It is common sense. It is green. Yes, it requires greater up-front cost, but the benefits far outweigh the cost. It is popular locally, a visual enhancement for communities, removing frankly shoddy, almost Third World pole-and-wire messes in the suburbs. It helps local retail business and property values. And environmentally, which I am sure you are interested in on the other side over there, it stops the destruction of tree canopies. You actually butcher trees everywhere. It prevents power pole accidents and removes ongoing pole maintenance. We seem to have cars running into poles as well. Undergrounding for transmission is a slightly different issue but another one that we must address if we truly want an effective, resilient, 21st-century power transmission network.

Far too often politicians boast about their plans for shiny renewables generation but neglect to mention the new transmission infrastructure they necessitate. This is slowly but surely destroying the social licence for renewable power in Victoria. We have to consider power transmission and generation in one piece. There is no point whatsoever in having the smartest, cleanest, greenest generation if it only works by cutting costly, unsightly swathes through prime agricultural land, environmentally sensitive landscapes and relatively densely populated areas. The economic, environmental and social costs are immense and still as yet uncaptured by the cost-benefit analyses required of network planners.

The Australian Energy Market Operator’s announcement of the Victoria to New South Wales Interconnector (VNI) West route is the latest threatened blight on Victoria’s landscape. Serious questions have been raised about its necessity and, in closer relation to this bill, its resilience. It has been described in a detailed submission by former Powerlink Queensland chief operating officer Simon Bartlett and the Victoria Energy Policy Centre’s Professor Bruce Mountain as a ‘monumental mistake’ and a ‘natural disaster magnet’. They are the experts; you should be listening to them. They note that the plan will significantly increase Victoria’s susceptibility to statewide blackouts through exposure to natural disasters and terrorism; double transmission charges; and delay, not accelerate, the transition to renewables until its completion in a decade’s time. That might sound unbelievable, but it is there in the figures.

The modelling assumptions can only justify the cost of the investment in the transmission network by claiming that vast sums of capital will not be spent on renewables generation construction in Victoria until much later than currently anticipated. The new route also means that much of the planned Victorian investment will end up in southern New South Wales – yet another reason why this is a bad plan for our state.

Aside from the absolute fiction required to make the value-for-money argument stack up, Professor Mountain and Simon Bartlett point out that concentrating transmission along the VNI route, where even AEMO predict severe network congestion, means up to 50 per cent of the capacity built in the corridor will be lost to spills and choke supply from Snowy 2.0. But the worst of that is it is unnecessary. Victoria has an alternative, with existing transmission capacity from the Latrobe Valley to Melbourne. As the duo note, this is ‘by far the strongest transmission corridor in Australia’, with existing structure and easements.

Michael Galea: On a point of order, President, we have had some points of order raised before in this debate about the strict application of relevance, and I would ask that that be applied here as well.

The PRESIDENT: If the previous point of order was upheld, I uphold your point of order. I call Mrs McArthur back to the bill.

Bev McARTHUR: Thank you, President. Obviously Mr Galea and the minister are terrified that we actually might get to the real heart of what is wrong with energy distribution in Victoria, and it is not only the distribution, it is the transmission that is causing no end of problems across this state. You will never get any transmission if you do not actually get social licence, just by way of a bit of advice.

What we are saying is that power cuts cause enormous inconvenience to customers, and prolonged emergency situations – where customers cannot keep their food cold, restaurants cannot operate and people cannot charge their mobile phones, for heaven’s sake – can do serious damage. In the farming community, as Ms Bath has said, we need to resort to diesel power generation to provide power, because the cows have to be milked, the milk has to be kept cold and we have got to provide the energy for the rotary dairy and all the facilities that are needed in food production, and yet we have no capacity to ensure that there is a proper supply of electricity when it is needed – and one way of doing it is to make sure we get the distribution and transmission in an environmentally feasible and sustainable way.

You are all on about the environment over there, but these transmission lines are cutting an absolute swathe through some magnificent environmental areas. In fact with the biolink down in the Darley–Melton area 45 farmers gave up land to provide the biolink, but these transmission lines are planned to cut them all off. Hundreds of thousands of trees were planted to help the environment and create a biolink. That is all going to be gone under your proposals.

We need an expansion to the grid to provide a low-cost link to renewables planned in the area and to significant offshore wind projects planned off our south coast. So while I will not be opposing this bill ‍– surprise, surprise – I think even the small amount of time being dedicated to it is a missed opportunity. It is a missed opportunity to think about transmission again, to understand the impact of new lines on communities, to consider re-using our existing assets and to build a network for 100 years time, not just for the next decade – a network which understands that locally generated, stored and used power is the future and that interconnectors will likely become unsightly and expensive anachronisms.

I would also say that a major problem in fire situations is roadside vegetation, which acts as a wick. When you have powerlines along the roadsides, trees fall on the powerlines and they create fires. In the St Patrick’s Day fires in my area, it was energy distribution – poles and wires – combined with out-of-control roadside vegetation that actually caused the damage to tens of thousands of hectares plus the loss of animals in the farming community. Unless we actually have a holistic approach to how we generate power, how we transmit power and how we distribute power, this sort of patchwork job of telling power companies they have got to do something is largely window-dressing. I think you need to get out of the business of instructing everybody that you are in control of everything when clearly you are incapable of being in control of much, and if you start directing people, you usually get it wrong, as we found in the COVID situation. Anyway, it is a shame we cannot look at how we do power generation, power transmission and power distribution better to avoid the situations that occurred in the storms. As you know, we will be supporting the bill, but please get your act together and get it sorted for the future.

Renee HEATH (Eastern Victoria) (11:46): I rise to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (Electricity Outage Emergency Response and Other Matters) Bill 2023 because of the importance to my community. After the extreme weather events of June 2021, the flaws of the current model became obvious. Some residents in the Dandenong Ranges went without power for weeks. I will mention here that this would not have occurred if the powerlines had been underground, and this is something that we should actually be looking into and investing in. During this time, after severe storms trees were down all over the region, roads were cut off, people were without power and internet and were unable to use lighting and heating in their homes, and the whole thing was a massive disaster.

Former emergency services commissioner Andrew Crisp said that it was the largest recorded power outage that Victoria has ever seen, and he said there was:

… flooding, fallen trees, downed powerlines, road closures, prolonged power outages, telecommunication outages and damage to critical infrastructure.

A resident from the area contacted me and said that never before had they felt so isolated. They were without power, the home was freezing and they could not use the internet, and for a time there was no mobile reception. Their landline was cut off. Not only was it extremely dangerous, but they felt completely forgotten and alone.

This bill does not even consider the economic and psychological damage that these communities were hit with. Cr Jim Child, mayor of Yarra Ranges council, declared it:

… the most significant storm event in Victoria’s history. 122 properties damaged, 72 of which were destroyed. 25,000 trees fell in a few short days.

This bill will streamline the process to support communities like those in the Dandenong Ranges in a time of power outages like those that were experienced in 2021. This devastation highlighted the urgent need for better mechanisms to support our emergency recovery efforts. It exposed the clear limits faced by the community in receiving critical information from electricity distributors. The government expert panel found that these distributors were not providing positive outcomes for customers during times of crisis and recovery. Granting the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action the power to direct distributors on critical information during outages and to compel them to support relief programs for their impacted customers is a positive step towards minimising the additional problems during times of disaster.

In closing, I would like to say that it is the incredible volunteers that assist during times of weather events such as in 2021. Volunteers have supported communities far more than the government ever has. I also want to highlight that in events like this a lot of the volunteers are members of the native timber industry. They come out, they use their own time, they use their own machinery, and they clear the trees from the areas that are blocking roads. I just want to put on record that this is something that, in the closure of the native timber industry, just has not been thought about. When there are extreme weather events, we need people like this. We need their machinery to come in and get the communities running again and back on their feet. Thousands of people in the community, because of this closure, will be forced to leave, and I do not think that is something that we have considered for upcoming disastrous weather events, which we have often in this state – that it is these people that come to our rescue.

Ingrid STITT (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Early Childhood and Pre-Prep, Minister for Environment) (11:50): I do thank all members for their thoughtful contributions this morning, even the ones that had relatively little to do with the bill before the house. It is always important to hear the contributions of all in the chamber.

In summing up, of course the first component of the bill is in direct response to the severe storms in June and October 2021, which caused the two largest mass power outages in our state’s history. The storms highlighted the vulnerability of our electricity distribution network to extreme weather, and as we know, climate change is driving more of these events. To improve the response to mass outage events, the Minister for Energy and Resources commissioned the electricity distribution network resilience review, which was led by an expert panel. I think it is important to acknowledge that a wide range of stakeholders, including community members affected by the 2021 storms and electricity distribution businesses, were consulted during the electricity distribution network resilience review.

In response to one of the recommendations of the review, the bill creates a new power for the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action to direct power companies to provide information to the Victorian public and assist in the delivery of relief activities during and after an electricity outage emergency. The second component of the bill makes technical amendments to confirm the Essential Services Commission’s enforcement and consumer protection powers in relation to our flagship energy efficiency initiative, the Victorian energy upgrades program. We strengthened the ESC’s powers through the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target Amendment Act 2022, but we are now ensuring consistency between that act and the Essential Services Commission Act 2001. Strong enforcement and consumer protection will ensure the Victorian energy upgrades program is able to continue to deliver energy savings and of course, importantly, greenhouse gas reductions.

During the second-reading debate, Mr Davis asked whether we might be able to provide some figures in relation to the storm events of 2021, which I have been able to receive from the department. AusNet’s costs for the repair of the network following the June 2021 storm were $31.9 million – and I note that Mr Davis is probably missing all this, but anyway, I will press on. The June 2021 storm costs were $39.1 million, with $12.2 million in compensation costs to consumers who were without power under the guaranteed service level scheme. The total network costs therefore were $51.31 million. In addition, the government paid $11.9 million in relief payments, and those figures do not include any economic impacts. I hope that satisfies Mr Davis’s questions, which he put during the second-reading debate, but given that he is not listening, I am not sure where that takes us. But I do commend the bill to the house.

Motion agreed to.

Read second time.

Third reading

Ingrid STITT (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Early Childhood and Pre-Prep, Minister for Environment) (11:54): I move, by leave:

That the bill be now read a third time.

The PRESIDENT: The question is:

That the bill be now read a third time and do pass.

Council divided on question:

Ayes (35): Matthew Bach, Ryan Batchelor, Melina Bath, John Berger, Lizzie Blandthorn, Jeff Bourman, Gaelle Broad, Katherine Copsey, Georgie Crozier, David Davis, Jacinta Ermacora, David Ettershank, Michael Galea, Renee Heath, Ann-Marie Hermans, Shaun Leane, Wendy Lovell, Trung Luu, Sarah Mansfield, Bev McArthur, Joe McCracken, Nicholas McGowan, Tom McIntosh, Evan Mulholland, Rachel Payne, Aiv Puglielli, Georgie Purcell, Samantha Ratnam, Harriet Shing, Ingrid Stitt, Jaclyn Symes, Lee Tarlamis, Gayle Tierney, Rikkie-Lee Tyrrell, Sheena Watt

Noes (2): Moira Deeming, David Limbrick

Question agreed to.

Read third time.

The PRESIDENT: Pursuant to standing order 14.28, the bill will be returned to the Assembly with a message informing them that the Council have agreed to the bill without amendment.

Business interrupted pursuant to standing orders.