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Sharples: Electricity (Disconnection...) Bill

Electricity (Disconnection and Low Fixed Charges) Amendment Bill
Dr Pita Sharples. Maori Party Member of Parliament for Tamaki Makaurau
Tuesday 8 April 2008; 8pm

Many people in the history of our great nation are remembered for their exploits – Hone Heke for chopping down the flagpole, Sir Apirana Ngata for his determined efforts in parliament, Sir James Henare for leading the Maori Battalion and his statesmanship, Buck Shelford for his leadership in rugby, and so on.

And unfortunate though it might seem, the name of Folole Muliaga will now forever be associated with this Electricity (Disconnection and Low Fixed Charges) Amendment Bill; a bill which reminds us of the helplessness and the tragedy of daily life for far too many New Zealanders.

And the tragedy is not the fact of low-income families in our midst, for there will always be those who will struggle.

The tragedy is how deaf we have become to the plight of an ever-increasing sector in our community, and the helplessness that poor people feel about a society that treats them like a boil on the butt, rather than as people in need.

We know of the Electricity Commission’s “Guidelines on arrangements to assist low income domestic consumers”, the recognition of the special needs of those with health or disability issues, and how the Commission wanted the power companies to deal with low-income consumers.

But we also know that the existence of such guidelines is recognition of the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society.

We know that New Zealanders are being crippled by the massive hike in housing prices

We know that 250,000 households get WINZ’s accommodation supplement for low income earners and beneficiaries

We know that some 230,000 kids miss out on support from the Working for Families package simply because their parents are on a benefit, and we know that far too many New Zealanders are being forced to buy cheap, nasty food because their money is being gobbled up by rents and other things.

And we recall with great sadness, that even though the guidelines existed, that there was nothing in place to deal with the heartless response of the call centre that flat out refused to even discuss any other payment arrangement, for the Muliaga family.

So we welcome this Bill if it helps improve the training of call centre staff, and we welcome this Bill if it helps people threatened with disconnection, and helps poor people understand their rights, how to talk to power companies about what different charges mean, how often bills come along, what the penalties are if you’re late paying, how you handle any disputes, and how you find out if there’s going to be any power shut-downs.

The challenge, of course, is how to communicate all this to the consumers.

* Will a pamphlet do? Or a note on a website?

* How do power companies tell who’s at risk?

* What happens when a household is close to being cut off?

* How do power companies teach vulnerable consumers about their rights?

* How are other agencies involved – iwi, health and social services groups, WINZ, budgeting services?

I ask these questions because something else we in the Maori Party know is this … putting information on websites, putting out more pamphlets, and telling people they’re welcome to discuss various aspects of their power bill doesn’t work.

For the simple reason that poor people don’t ask rational questions about power supply and default procedures because they don’t know how to ask, and they’re too shy about looking dumb, so they look at the ground, and they smile, and they mumble a yes when you ask them if they understand, and they shuffle their feet, and they nod while you’re talking to them, but most of them just want you to go away ‘cause they feel uneasy, on their porch, next to a rotting rubbish bag, and smelling the stink clothes in the washhouse.

And we know too that disconnection affects a family in heaps of ways.

No TV, no kai, can’t flush the toilet, no hot water to wash, no light for homework, can’t turn the heater on, people start blaming one another, families start bickering and fighting, and kids sneak off to their mates’ place ‘cause they hate being in the dark.

And we know also that disconnection leads to dangerous situations like fires in unsafe places, candles close to beds, and people trying to hotwire their houses in the dark.

Sure – none of us WANTS to see people get their power cut off, but in a time of rising food prices, rising petrol prices, and unreachable house prices, rising electricity prices and disconnections are a fact of life that we have to deal with.

And electricity price rises and disconnections don’t only affect poor people.

The Federation of Family Budgeting Services, has issued a warning that while in 2002, the average debt owed by clients was 2500 dollars, today that debt is a staggering six thousand dollars and that more and more middle income people are struggling with mortgages and rent, and struggling to make ends meet.

Mr Speaker what happened to the Muliaga family last July was a tragedy.

What happened to the rest of society was a brutal wake-up call.

Hopefully this bill will lead to better things.

Be nice to think the power companies have learnt something, and we hope the new measures proposed in this Bill will help consumers understand how to manage their power costs better.

But I do worry that our response will look great on paper, but still go right over the heads of the people it is intended to serve.

Having good information is meaningless if those who need to, never see it.

We urge parliament and the electricity industry to put more energy into working with people who know their communities, and engaging with them to ensure that those communities genuinely do understand the issues and how they affect them and their families.


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