Off the grid … spending a bundle of taxpayer dollars to stop a farmer from having his say. Photo: Paul Jones
The thing that really irks Bruce Robertson is not just that the giant power companies are threatening to sue him but that their lawyers are demanding he pay for their costs.
"It was a service I never requested,'' quips Robertson, who has had to resort to black humour since the letter from Grid Australia arrived out of the blue last week.
In the quintessential act of corporate bullying, the nation's electricity transmission giants are threatening to sue the corporate-analyst-turned-cattle-farmer from the mid-north coast of NSW.
Bruce Robertson and his family. Photo: Supplied
Robertson has been a constant thorn in their side this year, revealing how the industry's ''gold-plating'', rubbery forecasts and rhetoric have been the main factors behind the nose-bleed rise in power bills.
Grid Australia, the peak body for the transmission giants, is trying to muzzle him with legal threats.
This story is not just about power companies gagging an outspoken critic. It is about governments too. Grid Australia's members are mostly state-owned power companies. They speak for $10 billion in network assets and they don't like Robertson accusing them of gold-plating one little bit.
Here's the catch. Governments are not allowed to sue their citizens (this is a good thing).
Nor are the other two members of Grid: Victoria's SP-Ausnet, which is controlled by a Singaporean multinational, or South Australia's transmission provider, ElectraNet, which is a consortium of powerful financiers. Both are too big to sue.
Under reforms to the defamation laws seven years ago, big companies are no longer permitted to sue (Section 9 Defamation Act, 2005). The intention of these reforms was precisely to stop this sort of intimidation by large vested interests. They were designed to prevent large corporations from using the law for commercial purposes - to shut down bad press, among other things.
So how can Grid Australia get away with its threats to sue Bruce Robertson?
For the past week, BusinessDay has made repeated requests of Grid Australia's law firm, Ashurst, to justify its action on legal and ethical grounds. Requests for an explanation have been ignored. Not even a ''no comment'' has been forthcoming.
Was Ashurst, one of Australia's ''big six'' legal firms, happy for Robertson and his family to lose their farm for the sake of making a fee? No answer.
As governments can't sue for defamation, and big companies can't sue either, we can only assume that Ashurst has deemed Grid Australia to be a small ''not-for-profit'' entity with less than 10 employees.
This highly contestable and technical conclusion might allow them to skirt around the law - the letter of the law that is. Clearly as a front for the power companies, the action shatters the spirit of the law. But Grid Australia's action rests on shakier ground than black letter law.
It doesn't even appear to be a legal entity, for a start. And it has to be a legal entity to sue.
According to ASIC searches, Grid Australia is not an incorporated body. Nor does it have a business name. Nor does it seem to be an incorporated association under the Associations Incorporation Act.
The website does not list a board. The contacts for Grid Australia all appear to be Transgrid employees. And the website was registered by a Queensland Electricity Transmission Corporation, not Grid Australia.
Departing from the legal aspects for a moment to deliver a layman's observation: Grid Australia is as much of a secret society, controlled by state government agencies, as it is a proper legal entity with a right to sue people for exercising their rights to free speech.
And so we have a front for Transgrid, spending a bundle of taxpayer dollars with a big-city law firm, in an effort to stop a farmer from having his say. And the taxpayers of Victoria and other states are also subsidising this ethically dubious exercise.
Already, Transgrid has spent taxpayer money securing the services of Sue Cato, often regarded as the most expensive crisis management consultant in the market, to assist with its reputational issues. Now it has resorted to lawyers.
BusinessDay has endeavoured for more than a week to contact the Ashurst staff involved in the action. We have also tried the PR department. Despite repeated requests for a response there was none forthcoming.
NOTE: As readers have pointed out there is a Grid Australia on the ASIC database. This entity is registered to an individual with an office in Elsternwick, Victoria. BusinessDay does not believe that this is the same entity working on behalf of the power companies. Efforts are being made to contact the individual.