Electricity industry threatens farmer who dared to fight
Fighters ... Bruce and Belinda Robertson with their family. Photo: Supplied
A NSW farmer has been threatened with legal action by the $10 billion electricity sector for questioning the over-investment in assets that has driven up power prices and rewarded power company owners, including the NSW government, with generous dividends.
Bruce Robertson, a former stockmarket analyst who took up cattle farming 10 years ago, has received a letter from lawyers for Grid Australia, the industry body that represents the nation's transmission companies, including the NSW government-owned TransGrid.
Mr Robertson, who runs a farm at Burrell Creek, west of Taree, has been accused of defaming and causing "significant hurt and damage" to the transmission companies and told to issue an apology and pay their legal costs.
His MP, the independent Rob Oakeshott, said Mr Robertson was paying the price for speaking up on behalf of his community against Transgrid's power line expansion plans.
"People want to know what is going on, and people such as Bruce Robertson and others, myself included, won't accept legal threats as a reason to stop applying pressure for reform," Mr Oakeshott said. "My message to the NSW government is 'call off the dogs' on this farmer, and start explaining an electricity reform agenda."
Mr Robertson became active after Transgrid considered building power lines through the Manning Valley, where his property is situated.
His investigations led to the exposure in the Herald of the links between inflated industry forecasts of electricity demand and soaring power bills.
He exposed the practice of "gold-plating" earlier this year after investigating the structure of the electricity industry and its regulated returns, identifying the fatal flaw that the more money the industry spent on infrastructure, the higher were its financial returns.
This gold-plating has been the principal driver of power prices, which in NSW have risen by 80 per cent over the past five years.
Next month the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, will seek agreement from the states to a series of reforms designed to take pressure off power prices.
Mr Robertson has been a thorn in the side of the power companies, making his claims through an organisation he established, called the Manning Alliance. He has long argued that increasing power bills were caused mostly by over-investment rather than the carbon tax or rising electricity consumption.
Grid Australia has threatened legal action over statements that Mr Robertson made in the Herald and to ABC radio on October 22. He challenged claims that Grid Australia made to a Senate inquiry into power prices that rising peak demand was a principal reason for increased spending.
In the letter sent to Mr Robertson, Grid Australia contends that it did not mislead the Senate inquiry in its submission, which listed the reasons it believes were behind rising prices.
These included "rising peak demand" as well as "more rigorous reliability settings and other obligations for network security".
Grid Australia accuses Mr Robertson of "wilfully or at best ignoring the facts presented to you so as to sustain your contentions to promote the campaign being run by you through the organisation known as the Manning Alliance".
"Our clients do not object to having matters of public interest discussed or debated, however they will not tolerate a wilful disregard for the facts as a basis of denigrating them."
In NSW companies with more than 10 employees cannot sue for defamation.