Photography: Dave Hunt/AAP
Australia’s mixed state energy grant program needs to be overhauled and streamlined to make it fair, the Australian Council of Social Services said, as low-income residents across the country seek to cut grocery bills and waive essential prescriptions to being able to afford electricity and gas.
In a report released Wednesday, Acoss argued that most of the concession schemes, which vary substantially between states and territories and are mostly provided as a flat-rate discount, were not “adequate to meet needs” and led to inequalities in assistance, with larger households receiving less help despite higher energy costs and needs.
Mark Goodrick, who lives with his partner, Jennifer, and their daughter in Nambour on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, told Guardian Australia that due to rising prices, his family’s energy costs have changed little over the last couple of years, despite moving from a draughty private rental to an energy-efficient public housing.
Their previous home was “a glorified tent — you’re basically freezing or roasted to death,” Goodrick said.
Goodrick and her family live on jobseeker payments and carers to take care of their autistic daughter. They receive the Queensland Electricity Discount, a flat rate valued at less than $7 a week.
Goodrick told Guardian Australia the family saved wherever they could to keep costs as low as possible.
“You’re always looking at food costs and making sure you’re not buying anything expensive, and you’re buying them close to the date so they’re as cheap as possible,” Goodrick said, “And you’re not substituting things that you need. I think that we went about five years without buying clothes.
Meanwhile, Michelle Jackson, 56, who lives with her 22-year-old son in suburban Hobart, Tasmania, said gas bills for her public housing property were over $500 a quarter until the department did not replace its gas stove with an electric split-cycle system. Only now have they slowly started to shrink, but they are still a burden.
“I try to cook during off-peak hours,” Jackson said. “I do my laundry late at night – I’m quite often out at midnight hanging it out. I don’t use my oven much because it takes years to heat up and costs a lot.”
Jackson, who lives with multiple physical conditions that prevent her from working, said she regularly had to choose which of her prescriptions to fill.
“Some prescriptions you really need, but it’s a no-brainer between what you get and what you hold off,” she said. “I just learned to live with the pain because I can’t afford too many pills.”
Acoss called on state energy ministers to commit to reforming energy concessions, recommending discounts that were means-tested and calculated on a percentage of the household bill as “more equitable and responsive to change.”
The calls follow a November report from the Consumer Policy Research Center which estimates that more than 35% of Australians entitled to energy bill concessions may not receive them due to the complexity of different state schemes and bureaucratic “mud” in the enrollment process.
Related: Hundreds of thousands could lose energy bill rebates of up to $372
The federal government forecast in its October budget that electricity prices will rise by 56% over the next two years and gas prices by 40%.
Concerns about energy affordability significantly predate the pandemic, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reporting in 2018 that, even then, high prices for households and businesses were “unacceptable and unsustainable”.
Acoss chief executive Cassandra Goldie said the reorganization was necessary to address “the flaws and inequalities that prevent those most in need of financial assistance from receiving it”.
“At a time when people are already reducing their energy consumption in whatever way they can and still find themselves in debt and unable to cover basic expenses such as food, rent and medicines, it is crucial that Energy Ministers take into account consider the call in this report for a new approach that better meets the needs of families,” Goldie said.
The report adds to ongoing calls by Acoss and other advocacy groups for the federal government to increase the rate of payments for job seekers, Austudy and other government social services to at least $70 a day.