Second Reading Debate – Energy Safety Legislation Amendment (Victorian Energy Safety Commission and Other Matters) Bill 2019

I am pleased to rise today to speak on the Energy Safety Legislation Amendment (Victorian Energy Safety Commission and Other Matters) Bill 2019.

Whilst we are not opposing this bill, I do have some concerns about what effectiveness this will result in, particularly for my electorate. I will go into some of the challenges we have had there over the last couple of years.

Effectively this legislation will abolish Energy Safe Victoria and replace it with the Victorian Energy Safety Commission.

But my question is: does it hold the power distributors to account more than was possible in the past? Is it more effective? We have heard from people in my community that Energy Safe Victoria has been a very ineffective regulator. A toothless tiger is what it has been called.

I think the rationale for that is that this regulator is responsible for very important critical infrastructure that can have absolutely volatile effects on the community if it is not managed well.

We saw that in 2017 with the St Patrick’s Day fires in both the member for Polwarth’s electorate and my electorate of South-West Coast. Jack and Betty Kenna and Jill and Brad Porter are two families that were very much affected by the fires.

Jack and Betty’s farm was the farm where one of the fires started. It started from a pole falling over in strong winds, and that pole had been assessed just three months earlier and assessed as safe.

Clearly it was not safe. Jack has spent an enormous amount of energy bringing to the attention of the government the poor regulation around poles, the fires that they are starting and the devastation that they are inflicting upon our communities.

Jill and Brad Porter have also been campaigning heavily to try to raise the awareness of how poor the regulation is around poles. They have done a tremendous job and an enormous amount of work, whilst trying to get their businesses back on track. Brad is an extremely good animal breeder, he is a wonderful dairy farmer with a wonderful herd, and he lost half of his cows. Now they are back to square one.

They are spending all of their energy not only on getting their business back up and running but trying to raise awareness for the community of south-west Victoria and the state of Victoria around the real risk we have of poles that are not being regulated effectively by Energy Safe Victoria because they are effectively a toothless tiger.

I remember reading, and I quote: The Royal commission identified ESV as a weak regulator in 2010 and again in 2017/18 Grimes reports … which has led to this change in the regulator’s governance structure.

This is why I am concerned, because is it just the governance structure that we are changing or are we able to get more effective fines? Because a fine of $250 000 for a company like a power distributor is actually nothing. They are actually getting more in benefits from the work that they claim they are doing to reduce fires, but at the end of the day there is still a risk there.

It is good to see the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change at the table today.

Mrs Porter said just last week in the paper that she is hopeful that the energy minister will put in place more meaningful financial penalties, so it is great that I have got this opportunity to actually—on Jill’s behalf—put that to her today.

I also think is a great opportunity to talk about the fact that the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission suggested the rollout of rapid earth fault current limiters, known as REFCLs. Now, these are for particularly high risk, bushfire-prone areas.

Now, my area is obviously a high-risk, bushfire-prone-area. But to roll these REFCLs out—I am not going to go into the fact of whether they are effective or not, because obviously there are questions there—we have to actually have three-phase power.

This brings up another issue that it is great to have the minister at the table for, because we have been campaigning for this in south-west Victoria.

One of our farmers, Bruce Knowles, and one of our United Dairy Farmers of Victoria (UDV) representatives, Oonagh Kilpatrick, and many other community members have been pushing the government to install three-phase power not only for bushfire mitigation but for reliable energy into the region.

Without three-phase power you cannot run dairy properties and you cannot have engineering businesses. We have people turning power on and it cutting out when somebody else is using it down the line.

The Powercor plans have just been made public, and I have written to you, Minister—through the Chair—to encourage you to support the plan. If the Australian Energy Regulator approves the plans that Powercor have put forward, it is then up to the government come to the party.

I say that on behalf of the UDV and on behalf of the farmers of western Victoria who have been campaigning through the food and fibre group that identified the infrastructure required to be able to grow agricultural businesses, particularly dairy, that need so much support at the moment. Having the cost of power being where it is and having the risk of reliability over the coming summer are real threats to dairy businesses.

But there is also, of course, the threat of bushfire, and we need to have three-phase power, particularly down in the Tyrendarra area, where we have got a pilot project ready to go to demonstrate how important it is to have good power. If we do not have good power, lines and infrastructure—poles and wires—how can we get better at even renewable energy to be able to feed back into the grid? Currently in western Victoria our infrastructure is so poor that we actually cannot contribute to the challenge by putting solar power on our dairy sheds.

We have an enormous amount of sheds which have the capability there to put solar power panels on, but if we cannot actually feed it back into the grid, how can we benefit and do this as a win-win for business and the environment, which is what all farmers focus on every day—being exceptional managers of the environment on a daily basis? So whilst we are not opposing the bill, I have the concerns that I have shared today.

In south-west Victoria where our poles have been left dilapidated we have many farmers checking the poles and seeing plates on them that read ‘1939’, ‘1954’ and dates like that from when those poles were actually put up.

They are sending photos to me of poles with holes where you can see straight through them, where the borers have done an enormous amount of damage. Yet, there are marks on the poles to say that they have been checked and deemed safe.

Well, Jack Kenna has certainly demonstrated to our community that that certainly was not the case. For them to have had to fight like they have to demonstrate this is a really terrible situation for the Victorian government to have on their watch.

Ido not know how much people who have been devastated by fires should have to do just to get their businesses back up and running—the emotional turmoil of that, let alone having to prove it day in, day out and keep a campaign going to say, ‘Look, we’re trying really hard to show how bad this is because we don’t want others to suffer like we’ve suffered’.

Losing your herd of cows, like Brad and Jill have, is something that I would not like to see anyone have to do. It took an enormous amount of energy and effort to get to where they got to, and then they just had it devastated.

The Member for Polwarth and I brought the Shadow Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change up to visit Jack and Betty’s farm and we met the Porters—actually, no, they were away that day but I know Jill and Brad obviously through dairy farming stuff that I have done with them over the years. They are good farmers, as are Jack and Betty.

We met them on the farm and he showed us the effects of what he had had to do. He showed us the pole where the fire began. We should not have to see that. It should not have to be up to people who have had this trouble.

Jack feels terrible on behalf of the community about where fire started. The pole actually had been checked, but he could see that it was terrible and it was not up to scratch.

The Victorian Energy Safety Commission that we are establishing today needs to have those powers given to it so it can actually be a regulator that can not only enforce better governance but actually, as Jill Porter has called for, put meaningful financial penalties in place so that the companies have to do the right thing to ensure the safety of rural communities.

Too often this government is governing for the state of Melbourne—sorry, ‘the state of Melbourne’? Gee, maybe that was not a faux pas—where these REFCLs have been put more than out in the country because we do not have three-phase power.

Well done to my community, who have fought so hard to raise this issue. Bruce Knowles and Oonagh Kilpatrick, the Victorian Farmers Federation and the UDV have worked so hard on the three-phase power campaign to get decent power, and to Jill and Brad Porter and Jack and Betty for raising the issue of our safety as rural communities, because we are worth fighting for.