Powerless pollies a 'national disgrace' as farmers left high and dry

1st September 2017 6:00 AM
Balberra cane farmer Anthony Ross says he feels there's no end in sight for power price relief. Balberra cane farmer Anthony Ross says he feels there's no end in sight for power price relief. Tony Martin

AS NEWS spread of the prime minister's plan to reduce homeowners' power bills by $1500 a year, Mackay region cane growers aren't seeing the same end to their "almost obsessive” plight.

The growers have been hit by a 130% increase in power prices over the past eight years and say the federal government's failure to act on their concerns is a "national disgrace”.

For the more than 40% of growers in the region have to irrigate their crops to give them the water they need, this latest snub is yet another kick in the guts.

Over the past three months, Mackay has received just 17% of the average rainfall for the same period since 1959 - which is not nearly enough to produce a profitable crop.

This week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned the screws on electricity companies, forcing them to effectively cut the average homeowner's power bill by $1500 a year - about the same amount Mackay cane grower Anthony Ross is paying each week to run two irrigation pumps.

"People are now starting to say it is becoming too expensive to irrigate, even though at this time of year you need to,” Mr Ross said.

"There's people who are starting to cut back and are considering solar and batteries but that is still not the whole solution.”

Mr Ross was biting the bullet and irrigating instead of facing a poor season next year saying he was really "over a barrel” when it came to paying for electricity and thinking about the price had become "almost obsessive”.

"No one seems to be able to work out how the electricity price is derived either...the generators have got a hand in it, then the linkage and then the retailer as well,” he said.

"It is fine to say there is competition but there is nothing here but Ergon to provide the electricity.”

The lack of a firm federal policy and vision for the electricity grid was leading Canegrowers chairman Paul Schembri to call for a national conversation about how the country values its agriculture industry.

Mr Schembri said without certainty from the Federal Government about what direction the electricity market was heading, not just in Queensland but all over Australia, then there wouldn't be the investment needed to fix this problem.

"We are in a terrible situation because we can't afford to water our cane to increase our yield and productivity,” he said.

"But it is not just cane growers, it is everyone who irrigates. It is a national disgrace how it got to this. The political systems in Australia are going to have to be serious about our power prices if they want to continue to have an agriculture industry.”

But Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg laid the blame squarely on the Palaszczuk Government.

"It is the State Government that sets the price, owns the network, owns the retailer and owns most of the generation for north and central Queensland,” he said.

"The former Queensland Labor Government merged three generation companies into two, creating the concentration problem in the market. The market concentration provides the Queensland government with the ability to exercise significant market power in the region, limiting the ability of other generators to respond to the late rebidding with lower prices.”

But while delivering her speech at the Powering North Queensland Summit in Townsville yesterday, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk blamed the Federal Government.

"In terms of Canberra, my government and our state, Australia's energy state, will not be lectured on energy policy, electricity prices or project investments,” she said.

"Queensland will not be lectured when the Prime Minister's home state of New South Wales requires almost 4000 gigawatt hours from Queensland to keep their lights on.

"Queensland will not be lectured when the Federal Energy Minister can allow a privatised power station close in his home state of Victoria with no plan, and dramatically increased wholesale electricity prices across the NEM.”