PM aims to end power gold rush on voters

By AAP Newswire

The great gold rush on Australian households might soon be over.

Energy companies who have gorged themselves on huge profits like the last days of Rome now know it could finally end within 12 months or so.

The question will be how much they can hold onto, and how much is clawed back for the consumers they ripped off.

And the question for Malcolm Turnbull is how much credit will voters give him if he can pull off what no prime minister in a decade has managed.

Energy policy in Australia has wrecked or helped wreck the leadership of John Howard, Turnbull (as opposition leader), Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Rudd again.

Tony Abbott's hyper-partisan attacks were key to making energy a divisive, hot button political issue.

So the constant chopping and changing led to an uncertain investment environment, as the goalposts for new energy generation kept shifting.

Retailers deliberately confused customers with dodgy discounts.

State governments hugely inflated the cost of upgrading their poles and wires network businesses, effectively hitting their own voters with an electricity tax to prop up state budgets.

Generators charged obscene fees just to run a little bit of extra power to keep the network stable - albeit a necessary technical requirement.

And they chose to keep gas generators shut down to take advantage of higher prices.

At the bottom were households and businesses who watched their power bills go from some of the cheapest in the world to some of the most expensive.

So families installed solar panels in droves, further fracturing the market designed in the 1990s for large-scale generation with generous feed-in tariffs.

Voter outrage boiled over and in early 2017 the government got the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to look at the energy market.

The result was damning when it was released on Wednesday.

The consumer watchdog had 56 recommendations to end more than a decade of rorts and rip-offs, including strong support for Turnbull's national energy guarantee.

"Australians are crying out for an energy policy that is focused on them," Turnbull told an event in Brisbane on Wednesday.

"Lower prices, put the customer first, that's my goal."

Turnbull got his personal income tax cuts through for low and middle-income earners, now he has a new plan to put money back in people's pockets.

The prime minister, like all of his predecessors, is prepared to fight a political battle on energy.

Unlike them, he might actually succeed.

Labor has been burned on energy policy many times, but could still arc up if Turnbull gives too much to his right wing.

Abbott and some conservative coalition MPs are holding out for a new coal-fired power plant, trying to wedge the prime minister.

But the technical evidence is with Turnbull - new coal is vastly more expensive than other new projects, not to mention how dirty it is.

Prices won't get cheaper if the cost of generating new coal power is higher than Australians already pay.

ACCC chair Rod Sims said businesses he spoke to aren't talking about building coal - they want gas, pumped hydro or renewable projects.

Retailers are already modestly dropping their prices in some areas, with more to come.

The ACCC says if its recommendations are implemented, prices could drop even further within months, and up to 25 per cent in a year or so.

If Turnbull can hold the line on his right wing, and keep Labor and the states on board with the national energy guarantee plan, he might just end the political paralysis on electricity.

Or this could be yet another false dawn, a politician promising cheaper prices and lower emissions while the industry keeps rolling in cash.

Chopping power bills while keeping emissions down and ensuring there are no blackouts would be one of Turnbull's landmark achievements.

That sounds a bit ridiculous to say - but it has just been so difficult for every recent prime minister before him.

Voters have had enough of the gold rush at their expense. Turnbull might be about to end it for them.