PM asks watchdog to review power prices

Paul Osborne, AAP Senior Political Writer
Watchdog to review electricity market: PM
Watchdog to review electricity market: PM

The Turnbull government hopes a review of the country's electricity market by the consumer watchdog will lead to cheaper power prices.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ordered the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to review retail electricity prices, saying the market doesn't appear to be operating as effectively as it could.

The commission will scrutinise electricity retailer behaviour and contracts offered to consumers and business to ensure they benefit from competition in the National Electricity Market.

"The Turnbull government is determined to ensure Australians get a better deal for their energy," Mr Turnbull said in a joint statement with Treasurer Scott Morrison on Monday.

"A better deal in electricity is vital to keeping the lights on, delivering cheaper prices to families and businesses and sustaining jobs, particularly the thousands of jobs in our energy-intensive industries."

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the government envisaged the inquiry would lead to reduced power bills for households and businesses.

"Certainly that is our hope," he told ABC radio.

"We want to get more information into the public realm and whatever reforms follow from that will be in the best interest of the consumer."

Given the review will be data-intensive and of a complex nature, the ACCC will be given until June 30 next year to undertake the review.

However, the commission will need to produce a paper within six months on its preliminary findings into the strategies and pricing behaviours of key electricity retailers.

It will work with the Australian Energy Regulator and the Australian Energy Market Commission in undertaking the inquiry.

The government says recent research by a number of organisations has highlighted significant concern about the causes of recent electricity price increases on the east coast.

These include from the Australian Energy Market Commission, Energy Consumers Australia and the Grattan Institute, as well as submissions to the COAG's review into energy markets, chaired by Alan Finkel.

TERMS OF REFERENCE FOR ACCC'S ELECTRICITY MARKET REVIEW INCLUDE:

* the key cost drivers of retail electricity pricing.

* whether there is any behaviour preventing or limiting competition or consumer choice.

* the profitability of electricity retailers and whether these profits are commensurate with the risk retailers face.

* all wholesale market price, cost and conduct issues relevant to the inquiry.

Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon said a public interest test was needed to make sure resources were used in a way consistent with Australian sovereignty.

"What Josh Frydenberg said on Radio National this morning was really a lame excuse for policy," Senator Xenophon told reporters.

"Right now Australia is facing an energy crisis and waiting 12 months for an ACCC inquiry is yet another failure of leadership on the part of the government to tackle these issues."

He said businesses were considering leaving Australia because energy prices were so high, and the government was stalling when it knew it should be putting in place an emissions intensity scheme - something it has already ruled out.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said an ACCC review was welcome, but it ignored the bigger problem.

"We don't have a national energy policy," Mr Shorten told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

Shadow energy spokesman Mark Butler said the Australian Energy Council recently stated that the lack of a national energy policy was the "single biggest driver of higher electricity prices".

Any national policy should include a national interest test for future gas developments, an emissions intensity scheme, greater investment in renewable energy and giving the ACCC independent market studies power to decide when to investigate markets that disadvantage Australian consumers, rather than wait for a direction from the government, he said.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said he and Resources Minister Matt Canavan had met with people interested in investing in coal-fired power.

"They are a long way off and clearly the discussions will continue," Mr Frydenberg told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

"We need to be technology-neutral. We can't made a single bet. Because that would be ruling out certain options that would be available to us.

"Coal will continue to play a major role, gas will continue to play a major role and renewables continue to play a major role."