Energy operators have been put on notice as the consumer watchdog is given additional powers to monitor pricing.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers on Tuesday announced an expansion to the competition and consumer regulator’s ability to monitor energy market prices.
Australians are already experiencing tough financial times and the government will not tolerate “dodgy behaviour” from operators on energy pricing, he said.
“I’ve maximised (the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s) monitoring of this really crucial market because we want to make sure that if there’s dodgy behaviour going on, we know about it and we can crack down on it,” Dr Chalmers told reporters in Brisbane.
The ACCC will make recommendations to the government on further steps that could be taken to address operator pricing.
Business confidence is being challenged by increasing costs across the board and energy prices are expected to add to existing pressures, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) warned.
Surging energy prices are feeding into input costs which reduces profits, ACCI chief executive Andrew McKellar said.
“There is a good underlying level of economic activity but there are headwinds,” he said.
“It’s a clear indicator that inflation is becoming the number one policy challenge in Australia at the moment.”
The discussion comes as Australia’s first community-owned electricity retailer has fallen victim to the energy crisis.
Based in Byron Bay, Enova Community Energy and its retail energy arm Enova Energy have been placed into voluntary administration, impacting its 13,200 customers across NSW and southeast Queensland.
“The market is broken and does not support small retailers,” Enova chief executive Felicity Stening said on Tuesday.
She said constant regulatory changes by state and federal governments were adding to market complexity and had caused Enova delays in being able to fund and resource energy innovation.
A proposed capacity mechanism is being discussed by state and territory energy ministers as a tool to ensure reliability of power supply amid the unprecedented period of transition.
Coal and gas – as well as renewable power technology – would be eligible for payments, with the market operator responsible for forecasting, buying enough capacity and determining demand.
But the mechanism will not come into effect until 2025.
The federal opposition criticised the government and the Victorian government for not doing enough in the short-term to prevent energy prices spiking.
The government must take responsibility for any blackouts after Victorian Premier Dan Andrews ruled out including fossil fuels in the capacity mechanism, Liberal senator James Paterson told Sky News.
But a near decade of energy policy mismanagement by the former Liberal-National government has worsened the current crisis, Dr Chalmers said.
“The most important thing that we can do … is to put in place a decent energy policy, which builds certainty and builds resilience,” he said.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton wants coal and gas to be prioritised during Australia’s shift to renewable energy sources.
“If you don’t (have coal and gas), then we’ll find ourselves in situations where you do have rationing and you do have blackouts, and prices do go up,” he told Sydney 2GB radio on Tuesday.
“At the moment I worry that that’s the path that (Energy Minister) Chris Bowen’s got us on.”
The Liberals will not support the Labor government’s efforts to legislate a 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 target.
Targets do not need to be legislated to be achieved, Mr Dutton said.
Dominic Giannini, Paul Osborne and Maeve Bannister
(Australian Associated Press)