WEST PERTH-based WA Council of Social Services has condemned the State Government’s increases to household fees and charges.
WACOSS chief executive Louise Giolitto acknowledged the dire condition of the State’s finances but said “budget repair should not come at the expense of our most vulnerable”.
“Increasing the cost of essential household fees and charges in this way will directly result in more vulnerable and low-income households in financial hardship,” she said in response to rises in electricity, water and public transport costs.
“We are disappointed (the Treasurer’s) first announcement as Minister for Energy is a huge rise in power prices without adequate compensation for those who can least afford it,” she said.
WACOSS said the annual increase of $169 to the fixed-access cost for electricity, 6 per cent increase in water and sewerage charges, and 1.8 per cent increase in public transport costs will “impact on all household budgets”.
“Wage growth is flat and increasing numbers of households in hardship seeking assistance are being turned away from overstretched services… The $66 increase to the Energy Assistance Payment to those with a Commonwealth healthcare or pensioner’s concession card is clearly inadequate.”
Ms Giolitto said a “more principled and effective response” to the State’s massive debt would be to “quarantine low-income households from these price rises through matching concessions”.
Treasurer Ben Wyatt said the Barnett Government “left behind a Budget with increases in household fees and charges, and given the state of finances there is no way the State can afford to stop them”.
“We have had to make tough decisions to help get the Budget under control and unfortunately the burden of those decisions need to be shared across the community.
“These changes to household charges have not been taken lightly by this Government, but we have no choice but to fix the mess left behind by the previous Government,” he said.
Mr Wyatt said the State was on target for a $42 billion debt by 2020 without changes.
“With our GST share at ridiculously low levels and Treasury forecasting a further $2.6 billion revenue write down since we were elected, fixing the mess we inherited will take time,” he said.
Essential household fees and charges impact disproportionately on those on lower incomes, who may spend less on them overall but devote a much greater proportion of their disposable income to covering their daily living costs.
Progressive tax measures are a fairer and more equitable way to fix the budget bottom-line, as they levy increasing charges based on a household’s capacity to pay.
“Increasing funding to the Hardship Utility Grants Scheme (HUGS) is not a mitigation strategy, because support only becomes available once households are already in debt. Quite simply, it’s the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, not the fence at the top.”
The Council has been critical of the administration and effectiveness of the HUGS scheme for many years, and is disappointed this announcement has come without consultation. It has written to the Minister suggesting a review of state concessions and offering assistance, and welcomes today’s announcement that there will be a comprehensive review into the concession system.
“The announcement of an extra $1.1m for financial counselling services will come with increased demand from households without concessions needing approval to get a hardship grant.”
“We hope this is in addition to the $2m cut by the Barnett Government that WA Labor promised to reinstate during State election.”
“Financial counsellors want to work with people in hardship to better manage their finances. It is not clear whether this funding will be enough to enable them to help more people to budget, or simply result in more time spent administering grants at the expense of providing assistance.”
“The Council is calling on the WA Government to rethink its approach,” said Ms Giolitto.
“They should put in place measures that ensure concessional households are fully shielded from rising prices,” she concluded.