The energy crisis in Australia has been playing out dramatically over the last few months. From independent government bodies intervening in the market to force energy producers to actually produce some goddamn energy and not exploit a disaster to milk us all for profit like the coal-burning parasites they are, all the way to the minutia of having a mini heart attack when you get the latest leccy bill.
According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), wholesale gas and electricity have tripled this quarter compared to 2021. As such, Aussies across the country are staring down bill increases of between 5% and 20%, depending on where they live and who they buy from.
There’s nothing that makes you feel more powerless than having to fork out increasingly wounding sums for essentials that are exponentially getting out of hand for huge international and political reasons far beyond your control or comprehension.
Here’s a novel idea; what if we all just collectively stopped paying our bills? Unions might have been smashed in this country but there is still power in the people (in theory). Surely if we all just straight up refused to pay, something drastic would have to happen, right?
It’s not entirely a new idea. In the UK, where energy prices have been rising at vastly unsustainable levels thanks, in part, to the war in Ukraine, a campaign called ‘Don’t Pay UK’ has been underway to convince people not to pay their bills en mass when price hikes kick in in October.
So far, almost 100,000 people have made the pledge on the campaign’s website to boycott their energy bills come October 1. The concept of mass-non payment draws on the Poll Tax riots of the late 1980s and early 90s in which 17 million Brits simply refused to pay new taxes. The protests actually ended up toppling the Conservative government at the time.
The current movement was sparked by the sharp rise in power bills in the UK, which have increased by around $1040 since last year after the government raised price caps on suppliers. A similar rise is set to come in a few months’ time, which campaigners say will push people into homelessness and poverty.
At the same time, energy giant BP posted a record profit of almost $12 billion in the second quarter of 2022 alone. It’s the perfect storm of unfairness and inequality and the Brits, or at least some of them, have decided they’re not having it anymore.
Not for nothing, Australia’s five biggest oil companies have made $138 billion in profit over the past seven years while paying absolutely nothing in tax. Just in case you needed any more heat to get that blood boiling.
Could the same thing happen here? And what would happen if it did? Let’s take a look.
What Would Happen if You Stopped Paying Your Energy Bill?
You’d think the answer would be fairly straightforward, right? You don’t pay your bills, you don’t get any energy. It turns out that it’s not that simple.
There are in fact a number of consumer protections in place that prevent energy companies from shutting off your gas and electricity supply. Depending on the state or territory you live in, you may be able to not pay and still turn your lights on, for a while at least.
There is of course a difference between non-payment for financial reasons and non-payment for political ones, although the distinction is blurred here as one is certainly driving the other. Dressing up a financial move as a political act of resistance may not get you much sympathy with the arbitrators of the energy rules, however.
Much of the advice online is geared towards those who can’t pay their bills, not those who refuse to, although the results may well be the same.
According to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, The Environment and Water, Australians will have 28 days from the non-payment of a bill before disconnection action can be taken. Under National Energy Retail Law, you will receive a bill stating how much you owe and when you need to pay by. You will then receive a reminder notice after non-payment of this bill, followed by a disconnection warning. After this, they have to try and contact you again before shutting you off.
Of course, this is the case with an individual. Don’t Pay UK’s strategy relies on everyone doing this at once, causing havoc with the energy companies and forcing them into action. Non-payment could have an impact on your credit score and, if you don’t pay within 10 days of being cut off, will cost you money to reconnect.
In practice, some in the UK have suggested that they will be alerting their energy supplier that they are cancelling their direct debit and will pay only a fixed amount per month for their energy. Others will simply refuse to pay from October 1 until prices come down. Don’t Pay UK has said that it will only be actioning the protest if more than 1 million people join in, otherwise, it argues, it will be much easier for energy companies to take action against individuals.
“It’ll be extremely difficult for energy suppliers to [cut off supply] on a mass scale,” it writes.
However, its strategy is to delay payment within the 28-day window that UK law guarantees consumers have to make up late payments. Beyond that, it will then mean requesting warrants through the courts to enter properties and cut off supply.
“Energy suppliers can’t take any action if you make a payment within 28 days,” it writes. “It would still devastate a company’s cashflow if thousands of people cancelled their direct debits and paid a few weeks later, with no consequences to the strikers, It’ll cause paralysis and create a months-long backlog”.
It appears as though the UK has slightly stronger protections for consumers in that the additional step of securing a warrant is needed before energy can be shut off to a property. This makes the practice of mass non-payment slightly more tricky in Australia, but, as Don’t Pay UK states, doing so would still wreak havoc on an energy company’s finances.
While Australia is not in as dire straights as those in Europe, we’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out in the UK. If it goes well, who knows, maybe we’ll get some ideas of our own.