Access to energy and water is essential for people’s health, wellbeing and security, and to meet all of their basic needs. This is recognised in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which sets out the goals of ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy and the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.[1]

Providing this access can be challenging, and Western Australia presents particular issues for authorities to overcome. Western Australia’s sheer geographic size, the isolation of its electricity network, and the need to manage scarce water resources are just some of the complications impacting affordability and accessibility. Uniform tariff and tariff cap policies are in place to ensure electricity consumers outside of the South West Integrated System (SWIS) are charged the same rate as consumers in the SWIS. Customers in the ‘country south’ are charged no more than metropolitan customers for the first 300kl of water they use and in the ‘country north’ for the first 500kl. These policies support more equitable costs for electricity and water; however, challenges remain in delivering and accessing affordable and reliable utility services to regional and remote parts of the State, particularly for certain remote Aboriginal communities.

Western Australia is in the advantageous position that ownership of our electricity and water retailers for residential consumers has remained in the hands of the public. Residential customers have largely been shielded in those areas from the failure of privatisation over east, with the supposed benefits of competition remaining elusive. The retail gas market in Western Australia, however, was made fully contestable in 2004. Prices for small-use customers, such as residential households, in the Mid West/South West, Kalgoorlie Boulder and Albany supply areas are still subject to a regulated price cap set by the WA Government.

Public ownership of electricity and water, coupled with a strong regulatory regime means that it is possible to pursue positive social outcomes to ensure equitable and affordable access to utilities that would be impossible to achieve were the provision of these services left subject to the profit-motive alone. Despite this, there are many Western Australian households for whom utility hardship is a lived reality and significant concern.

This report seeks to extend our understanding of the factors and pathways that lead to financial stress and utility hardship. It examines patterns and trends for different groups of households to better identify the risk factors and early signs of hardship, whether current safeguards are providing appropriate support to vulnerable consumers and key factors that contribute to effective hardship policy and practice. It then outlines solutions that could provide early assistance to consumers to reduce hardship and avoid debt.

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