Pay Bills

Remote residents start paying electricity bills for the first time – just as food prices soar

An Anangu leader from Pukatja says people in remote YPA lands are struggling financially due to soaring food prices and newly imposed electricity bills.

Residents of Pukatja, Mimili, Pipalyatjara and Amata have started paying for their electricity following the phased roll-out of the South Australian Government’s Mandatory Remote Area Power Scheme, which was introduced in July.

While the scheme is backed by codes and regulations set out by the South Australian Essential Services Commission to protect remote customers, Pukatja Community Council Vice-Chairman Gary Lewis said many residents are experiencing financial hardship due to soaring food prices and electricity bills.

Gary Lewis says newly imposed electricity bills are causing families financial stress. (Provided: Gary Lewis)

“People don’t have the money to pay for electricity or go to the store and spend their money,” he said.

“If you buy things like flip flops, it’s $35, and at other places like Kmart and all that, you can buy it for maybe $7 or $5.”

Mr Lewis notes that many people struggle to find permanent employment and that social benefits do not cover basic living needs.

“If people don’t have money, they go to their families and relatives to ask for money to buy electricity and that’s not the right way for people who live in the community of Pukatja and in APY land just opposite,” he said. .

“It creates a lot of worry and a lot of stress for families.”

Last week, Liberal Senator Kerrynne Liddle traveled to remote communities, including Pukatja, where she met locals who told her of their cost-of-living concerns.

Ms Liddle told ABC Radio Adelaide she was shocked by the prices of some food items, including two liters of milk costing over $8 on land.

An aerial view of a small desert town with red dirt receding into the distance
Communities like Mimili are now billed for electricity.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

Mr Lewis believes the state government failed to negotiate with community councils over its mandatory food system.

“They didn’t really go through the council, they named MoneyMob Talkabout, an Alice Springs organization,” he said.

“They’re in the middle, talking to people and they don’t really represent the community.

“It hasn’t been set up in the right way on how to train people on the meter and give us information; so the council knows how to handle power in our own community so we can help others. “

In a statement, the Department of Energy said Mining MoneyMob Talkabout were contracted to provide energy education and support services for program roll-out and were not required to negotiate with the community.

He also insisted that the department had met with councils, executives and the community to make sure people understood the program.

MoneyMob Talkabout information packs for residents of APY land who are starting to pay electricity.
MoneyMob Talkabout provides information to each community to help them through the transition.(Provided: MoneyMob Talkabout)

Safety nets in place

The department’s director of energy programs and services, Steven Bye, said MoneyMob provided posters, flyers and videos produced by community members to educate residents.

“We also went door-to-door, led by MoneyMob Talkabout and we also employed about 30 local community members who are trained in energy education.”

While retailer Cowell Electric is reportedly monitoring disconnection rates, a clear picture of the system’s success won’t emerge until the program is reviewed in 12 months.

“If there are people who frequently have disconnects, we will do everything we can to try to contact them and see how they are doing if they need more energy education or financial support as well,” said said Mr. Bye.

MoneyMob Talkabout Energy Education Worker at a smart meter in Pukatja.
Energy educators will be on the ground to help people who experience frequent disconnections.(Provided: MoneyMob Talkabout)

There are safety nets to help households, including emergency credit, as well as the ability for customers to choose to pay through Centrepay, directly from an individual’s Centrelink payment.

“There are a number of disconnects that we can see, but that has come down significantly over time as people have gotten used to it and Centrepay applied to the meter has been a big win I guess in reducing those disconnects” , Mr. Bye said.

“New paying customers are also charged about a quarter of that of other residential customers…so they only pay 10 cents per kilowatt hour.”

“A big change”

MoneyMob Talkabout’s Pawa Atunmankunytjaku project manager Nick Rickard said that while this has been a big change for everyone on APY land, his team is providing as much help as possible to ease the transition.

“Communities started paying one by one so we could spend a full week in the community to have a presence there to support residents as they got used to paying for electricity.”

Mr Rickard said that although it was a difficult time in the Lands with high living costs, each household had different circumstances and varying needs for assistance.

MoneyMob Talkabout team in Pukatja on APY land.
The MoneyMob team traveled to Pukatja to help the community roll out the program.(Provided: MoneyMob Talkabout)

“If you haven’t paid for something like electricity, you haven’t really thought about it before,” he said.

“Talking to many in the community, many think that’s a good thing because what happens in many cases is that people live on APY land and then they can move to Adelaide or in Port Augusta, and they get stung with a huge bill because it’s just something that was never on their radar.

“So now that people are thinking about paying for electricity, they’ll be better prepared if they move somewhere else.”