Views on Mercury

The HoS editorial says there are still a tangle of unanswered questions over the Muliaga death.

The United Future leader, Peter Dunne, attempted to stem the flow of political cant by warning politicians against “milking an awful situation for their own opportunity”, though his supplementary comments suggested that he might not be above doing so himself. The result has been, not a moment too soon, a reduction in the rhetorical bile pouring from the ninth floor of the Beehive. It is all well and good for the Prime Minister to heap scorn on the “hard-nosed” attitude of Mercury Energy. But the retail electricity business is one of the nation’s most intensely competitive. The contractor who pulled the plug in Mangere Bridge was the last link in a very long chain of policy-setting and decision-making that stretches back to Wellington and, through both Labour and National administrations, to 1984.

The Government wants to toughen the requirement for electricity providers to refer customers to social agencies if there is evidence that they are having difficulty paying the power bill. But this idea sounds a good deal better than it is. It requires electricity retailers to adopt a role for which they are neither equipped nor responsible. It is no great stretch to wonder whether a supermarket checkout operator, noticing a shopper with a meagre trolleyful and an empty purse, should unilaterally get WINZ involved for fear that she will be blamed for letting others’ kids go hungry. Will a service station attendant who notices that a car’s tyres are bald and does not immediately alert state agencies that the driver may be unable to afford retreads be adjudged culpable when the car later skids in the wet and kills a pedestrian?

Despite our natural human inclination to seek simple answers to complicated questions, it is plain that this matter will not be laid to rest when the electricity retailers accede to the baying from the Beehive and change their disconnection procedures. That is something that they most certainly need to do, at least in the case of customers who are plainly making an attempt to clear arrears. But if Mrs Muliaga’s breathing machine was keeping her alive – and it is far from clear that it was – why was she not protected by the doctors who put her on it from death by power cut? As the power bill arrears increased, what proportion of family income was going to the family’s church? What was the church doing in return?

All good comments and questions. Meanwhile in the same paper Matt McCarten has found someone new to blame for her death.

What no one has yet focused on was why the Muliaga family was struggling to pay their power bill. I’ll tell you why. The Muliaga family, like hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are being exploited by employers who are returning large profits to investors. Ever since the Bolger National Government deregulated the labour market, wages have been dropping while profits have been rising.

McCarten is of course wrong about wages having dropped since 1991. They increased faster than inflation. What I find fascinating is no one has yet confirmed that the family were getting their full family support and accommodation supplement. This will have more than doubled their net income, if they were claiming it all.

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