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‘Fuel poverty’ issue missed in Muliaga case

Friday 1 June 2012

Death by disconnection: ‘Fuel poverty’ issue missed in Muliaga case

An analysis of hundreds of print media stories on the death of Auckland resident, Mrs Folole Muliaga, after her power was cut off by Mercury Energy in 2007 has found that the wider issue of ‘fuel poverty’ was largely ignored.

The University of Otago, Wellington study by Kimberley O’Sullivan, Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and Dr Geoff Fougere looked at how the print media reported this case, and the themes of 368 stories from metropolitan papers.

“This is an interesting study as it shows how the print media covered a controversial and tragic case over a long period, and the key angles followed by journalists and editors,” says Kimberley O’Sullivan.

The study concludes that while newspapers concentrated on four key themes, they largely ignored the economic and social factors which may cause power to be cut off to low income families when they can’t pay their bills.

These structural issues result in an inability to afford enough power for domestic use, and households slipping into ‘fuel poverty’. This has been defined internationally as where a family or individual needs to spend more than 10% of their income on energy to have a warm home.

“Newspaper stories focused on the health of Mrs Muliaga and the personal tragedy for her family, conflicting evidence about why power was cut, institutionalised racism, and who was ultimately responsible for the power being disconnected; the Muliaga family or Mercury Energy,” Mrs O’Sullivan says.

However, the study says fuel poverty is a developing health issue resulting in cold damp houses which can make people chronically sick. It has been previously highlighted by University of Otago, Wellington research published in the prestigious UK British Medical Journal in 2007 and 2008.

The study concludes that public health advocates and energy NGOs missed the link between Mrs Muliaga’s death and the wider social and health issues relating to poor housing, low income and fuel poverty.

Regulation changes following this case now require electricity companies to only focus on maintaining supply to people with medical problems, rather than addressing the issue of security of supply to people on very low incomes.

This contrasts with countries like the UK where there have long been subsidies and assistance to avoid people falling into the ‘fuel poverty trap’.

“The 40% increase in real power prices (or an 80% increase in the nominal price) since 2002 by government-owned utilities and private companies is now a health issue, causing some low income households to ration power usage and live in cold, damp and unhealthy homes,” says Professor Howden-Chapman.

The study appears in Kotuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online and was funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

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