Energy bill comparisons are all very well, but why should we have to, asks Terry Sweetman

EVERY few months I receive a phone call from Telstra, usually when I am up to my elbows in something.

The caller exchanges a few pleasantries and then says he or she is checking I’m getting the best possible deal from Telstra. As I am barely account literate, I have little idea of the deal I’m on and even less idea of whether it could be better. But I fondly/foolishly presume I am on the best deal Telstra can offer because it knows from its metering and accounting system precisely how much and how I use my telephone.

When they invented the term “lazy consumer”, they were thinking of me, although they might even have been constructing the phrase “ignorant consumer”.

I’m one of a cohort of older Australians whose relationship with Telstra began with the simplicities of the Post Master General’s Department and ended with me having shares in something we once all owned.

Now alternative providers compete with each other and compete within themselves with multiple packages and contracts.

That’s competition, the economic elixir that is supposed to bring delirious levels of efficiency and wonderful reductions in costs.

It is the medicine that is supposed to get us the best deal from banks although, for possibly the same reasons, I am yet to benefit from it. When politicians say “change banks”, I think “frying pan, fire”.

Similarly, choice and competition is supposed to turn superannuation into the pathway to an idyllic retirement.

In the latest battle for our retirement buck the Financial Services Council has its eyes on what it calls “subscale” default super funds.

Among the combative waffle, FSC boss Sally Loane was quoted as saying: “Many can’t change funds because of the current industrial awards governing default super, and many are chronically disengaged or disinterested.’’

Sorry, Sal, you might be able to change awards but you can’t legislate for engagement or interest.

The “chronically disengaged or disinterested” are ordinary people who can’t share the enthusiasm for choice and competition espoused by financiers and politicians harking back to Peter Costello.

They don’t become engaged for any number of reasons and any need to be engaged is counter to the planned simplicities of the national superannuation scheme.

But, in the face of a demonstrable national apathy when it comes to financial affairs, the Government is counting on the engagement of ordinary people to cut household electricity bills.

Rising prices and an alleged looming crisis in electricity generating capacity are potent political issues.

media_cameraMinister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison during a meeting with energy company heads last month. (Pic: Dean Lewins/AAP)

Neither side of the political system can escape blame or claim to have all the answers to keep the home fires burning.

However, the attempt by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to have ordinary consumers seek their own answers to a problem not of their making is puerile at best and offensive at worse.

His short-term motherhood solution is to have power retailers send out letters directing customers to the Government’s website Energy Made Easy to find out where they might get a better deal.

Sage advice, I’m sure, but many people already do that marketing chore, to the extent that electricity discounts have overtaken real estate values in the discourse of at least one bloke I know.

John Durie, writing in The Australian the other day, found potential savings on his bill of more than $500 a year.

I don’t know what he runs around the house, but the Government’s site indicated I might save an eye-watering $40 a year if I signed up with a mob that sounded like it could be bankrolled by a Nigerian prince.

Little fish are sweet but, really?

Turnbull is concerned that about half of all households haven’t changed retailers or contracts in the past five years.

Why the hell should people have to shop around on a regular basis for the sorts of utilities that are necessities of life?

Why should old, disadvantaged and disengaged people have to change retailers they might have been dealing with since they were in shared digs?

Turnbull says “people’s unwillingness to change is helping the retailers”. These being the same rapacious retailers who were invited into our households by a political enthusiasm for corporatisation and privatisation.

Pressed on whether there should be one single regulated rate for electricity, Turnbull said: “I think if you have one regulated rate then you eliminate the opportunity for competition so it’s important to make sure that there is competition in the market so people will get cheaper prices.’’

“Competition is not driving up prices,’’ he declared.

It mightn’t be driving up prices but I’d take some convincing it is driving them down as promised.

And it is not the consumer’s job to find solutions to a so-called crisis that is largely the creation of the political class and its business friends.

Originally published as We shouldn’t HAVE to shop around for utilities

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