Electricity companies appear to be able to opt out of contracts.
When is a contract not a contract? When it is with a power company, it seems.
The industry's regulator has decided that your power supplier can raise charges whenever it decides, rejecting a plan from a consumer group to force utilities to comply with the terms of a contract.
Electricity suppliers have been accused of seeking to entice new customers by offering attractive deals on two- or even three-year contracts – except the small print gives the supplier an opt-out, the ability to raise prices when it wants.
As a result, a consumer who has shopped around to find a plan that suits them can find the prices have changed even before they receive their first bill.
This prompted the Consumer Action Law Centre, through its arm the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre, to seek to have power companies blocked from being able to unilaterally change fees and charges. It went to the industry's regulator, the Australian Energy Market Commission, asking it to act.
But the regulator decided not to, preferring instead to ask retailers to be upfront about any changes.
''Energy retailers must tell consumers if prices can change during the term of their retail contracts, and provide clear product disclosure details on when they will notify customers about price changes,'' commission chairman John Pierce said.
''We're pretty disappointed,'' Gerard Brody, the chief executive of the Consumer Action Law Centre, said. ''We wanted product standardisation and to make shopping around worthwhile.
''We hoped for increased certainty around the market.''
Electricity companies claim volatile energy prices in the wholesale market make it difficult to comply with contractual commitments. As well, more than half the cost of electricity can be out of their control – for example, green schemes that are mandated by government and the introduction, or withdrawal, of a carbon tax.
''Retailers can manage those risks better than households,'' Mr Brody said. ''They know the market. Instead, all of the risk lies with the household.''
The regulator's decision is at odds with that of regulators in other countries, such as the UK regulator Ofgem, which last year blocked power retailers from raising prices on fixed-term contracts, which are disadvantageous to the customer. Similarly, power companies are prevented from levying termination charges when their fixed-term contracts expire.