Complaints soar as people struggle to pay power bills

THE number of families who have had their electricity cut off or who face disconnection because they cannot pay their bills has surged, leading to a new high in complaints about electricity and water utilities.

There were 8913 cases, up 3 per cent, in 2007-08, says the annual report by Clare Petre, the NSW Energy and Water Ombudsman, released today. Complaints have more than doubled over the past eight years.

The modest overall increase masked a 32 per cent rise in complaints linked to affordability, to a record 1484.

In recent months there had been a notable increase in families facing difficulties paying their electricity bills. "Some customers have substantial arrears on their account which they are having trouble reducing because they are struggling to cover their usage costs," Ms Petre said.

Some families are facing bills running to "a couple of thousand dollars" a quarter, she said. She advised families to contact their electricity provider to discuss ways to cut consumption, and in some cases to seek financial assistance if they are in arrears.

In all, 983 families were disconnected, and another 866 faced disconnection because of non-payment of bills.

The largest area of complaint remains issues relating to billing, such as bills that are too high, disputed amounts, delays in receiving a bill, or a bill not being received. Complaints in this area made up 37 per cent of all those lodged with the Ombudsman.

The highest level of complaints came from areas surrounding Sydney such as the Blue Mountains, Gosford and Wyong, followed by inner Sydney and the Hunter. Origin Energy was the company with the highest rate of complaints, 281 per 10,000 customers, followed by Jackgreen, with 151. TRUenergy and Canberra’s ActewAGL both had 43 complaints per 10,000 customers.

A family bond beyond blood

KATHRYN ORFORD’S mother was adopted and then, when she was 43 in 1998, she found out that she too was adopted.

It was not a great surprise. She had long suspected something but could not quite put her finger on it, yet she had loved her upbringing and her adoptive parents so much she too thought it quite natural to adopt when the time came to make a decision about parenthood.

In 2003, the Forestville peak-performance coach flew to Ethiopia to meet Samrawit, a five-year-old girl who adoption agencies believed had been orphaned.

"I woke up on the morning of my 48th birthday with Samrawit lying next to me. It was the best birthday of my life," Ms Orford said yesterday.

"My adoptive mother had trouble conceiving so I was her long-awaited child and was so very, very much cherished.

"In my early 40s I’d gone to sperm banks and considered the whole IVF thing and when I questioned whether I wanted to be a biological mum or just a mum, I thought, a mum would do fine.

"And adopting a child from overseas who faced death, disease or abject poverty was a way of keeping what had been a way of life in my family for three generations."

A single mother, Ms Orford has decided to tell her story publicly as part of National Adoption Awareness Week and her unusual family history is a kind of tree of life of adoption in Australia.

For much of last century, so many children were surrendered around Australia that, Ms Orford said, some studies estimated 70 per cent of the population have personal experience of adoption.

But then the well dried up when the pill and ready availability of supporting parent pensions arrived and since the 1970s Australians have tended to adopt overseas.

Ms Orford’s biological mother, a South African Boer, attached a note to documents lodged with the Department of Community Services that she did not wish to meet her daughter.

"She said her husband had ill health and I can only assume it’s because he does not know of my existence," Ms Orford said.

Ms Orford was born in 1955 at Royal North Shore Hospital, according to her adoptive mother’s closest friend, after her birth mother had a shipboard romance with a Melbourne man. Both were engaged to others.

"I only found all this out when I was thinking about IVF and was asked how difficult my birth had been for my mother," she said. "At the time, my mother was in a nursing home suffering dementia and slowly dying, so I asked my Aunty Molly … eventually she told me I was a adopted. I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must have been for my mum arriving in Australia, just 22, no family, no friends and pregnant in the ’50s.

"I wait in hope that one day she’ll be ready to meet me."

In the years since adopting Samrawit, Ethiopian authorities have informed Ms Orford that her daughter’s parents were in fact alive and had surrendered the youngest of their nine children because they could not afford to keep her.

"We are going to Ethiopia in early 2010. Samrawit will meet her mum and dad and brothers and sisters and not go through life wondering who she is or where she came from."

Cousins sympathy vote falls short

WHEN Ben Cousins was arrested in a Perth street, his bare torso revealing the defiant "Such Is Life" inked across his stomach, it seemed that line was all the drug-addicted footballer shared with its author Ned Kelly.

However, after a day in which the AFL Commission refused to tamper with its rules to allow Cousins’s return, and Richmond indicated they were therefore "highly unlikely" to recruit him in today’s pre-season draft, it seemed he could depart the game for good with the folk hero status of the notorious bushranger.

Spurned and vilified by the AFL, several clubs, the media and many fans after his first attempt to return from drug rehabilitation last year ended with his humiliatingly public arrest, Cousins has suddenly drawn sympathy from those who believe he has been sucked in and spat out by an uncaring system.

Even after Richmond’s football manager, Craig Cameron, seemed to put an end to Cousins’s chances of being drafted yesterday – and, most likely, to his AFL career – the fans, enticed by the prospect of the 30-year-old bolstering their young and promising midfield, pushed for the Tigers to reconsider the decision.

The chorus was led by former Sydney Swans Brownlow Medallist and media pundit Gerard Healy who, having dealt personally with Cousins in recent times, passionately advocates his return to the game.

Healy, who broke the story of Richmond’s bid to recruit Cousins on Fairfax radio, said last night that the Tigers’ decision was not yet final and a change of heart today could lead them to pick him with the sixth and final pick in the draft. However, Cameron said he had told Cousins’s manager, Ricky Nixon, the club was now unlikely to recruit him.

"It’s our prerogative to take a deep breath and consider our position – in fact it is incumbent on us as a football club to do that for our supporters," Cameron said. "But it is highly unlikely that we will select him tomorrow."

Cameron said the strong support for Cousins’s recruitment by supporters would not affect the club’s long-term strategy to recruit a young player – possibly NSW junior Kade Klemke.

"I think the decision we have to make has to be a long-term decision and it shouldn’t be based on a swing on public mood in the last week," he said.

It had been that public groundswell of support for Cousins that led most to believe the AFL, which is notoriously sensitive to public opinion, would rubber-stamp Richmond’s plan to recruit the player the league had readmitted to the game under onerous drug-testing conditions last month.

Under Richmond’s proposal, defender Graham Polak, whose playing future has been in doubt since he suffered head injuries after being hit by a tram, would have been placed on their rookie list as Essendon had been allowed to do with cancer patient Adam Ramanauskas. Richmond would then have been granted an extra pick in today’s draft with which they intended to take Cousins.

However, with most of the 14 clubs which made submissions about Richmond’s application opposed – mostly on the grounds that, unlike the uncontracted Ramanauskas, the Tigers were able to keep Polak by simply putting him on their long-term injury list – the commission yesterday turned down the proposal.

Aware that they could be seen to be thwarting Cousins’s attempt to return to the game, AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou was eager to make it clear the decision was based solely on Polak’s situation.

"We’ve made our position [on Cousins] clear, we hope he plays football because it would be good as part of his rehabilitation," Demetriou said.

As he emphasised, Richmond are still entitled to recruit Cousins today. However, it seems they are unwilling to do so without the tacit AFL support that would have come with a positive decision on their Polak application – which would have in turn assured shared responsibility had the gamble backfired.

Now, unless the Tigers make a spectacular backflip, Cousins will have to decide whether to play at a lower level in the hope of being drafted at the end of next season. Or, like that other folk hero Kelly, to depart with a fatalistic shrug.

Tigers coy on Cousins pick

RICHMOND is still a strong chance to draft Ben Cousins today despite the AFL’s decision to deny the club’s request to transfer the recuperating Graham Polak on to the rookie list.

While the club’s official line was that it was "highly unlikely" to pick Cousins in today’s pre-season draft, sources last night suggested that Cousins was a better-than-even-money chance to be selected.

Key officials were discussing the issue last night, including coach Terry Wallace, general manager of football operations Craig Cameron and chief executive Steve Wright.

The club’s board, which had already given approval to recruiting Cousins, had largely left the decision to the football department and executive last night.

The club was mindful not only of its list management needs and youth agenda, but also the Tiger army’s groundswell in favour of Cousins, fanned by club ambassador Kevin Sheedy and talkback radio, with supporters having deluged the club with messages imploring it to pick the Brownlow medallist and recovering drug addict.

In an Age poll, 78 per cent of the 5000-plus respondents said they thought the Tigers should pick Cousins.

A matter of hours after the AFL Commission declined Richmond’s application for Polak, who is recovering from head injuries sustained in a collision with a tram, the Tigers said it was highly unlikely that Cousins would be picked with their one selection in today’s pre-season draft.

Even then, however, Cameron left the door ajar for Cousins, in that he did not categorically rule out the former West Coast champion and suggested that the club needed to pause — "take a deep breath" — and absorb a decision that caught the club by surprise. Had the Polak application been successful, the Tigers would have had no hesitation in using their extra selection to pick Cousins. Now that it has been rejected, Cousins’ chances of reviving his career rested last night on Richmond’s willingness to abandon the club’s insistence on linking Cousins’ arrival to the Polak transfer.

In the AFL community, at club level, it was seen that the AFL had called Richmond’s bluff.

If he is not picked, Cousins will have no avenue to play AFL football in 2008, and his career would likely be over, ending a post-season saga that has had three Melbourne clubs — Collingwood, St Kilda and finally Richmond — contemplating recruiting the recovering drug addict, with the Magpies, Saints and Brisbane Lions dropping out, in that order.

"It’s unlikely the Richmond Football Club will select Ben with six. Our position with pick six has been fairly well documented," said Cameron, who said the club was disappointed by the decision.

"This (the AFL’s decision) is a decision that was unexpected by us. It’s our prerogative to take a deep breath and consider our position. But it is highly unlikely we will select Ben."

The Tigers had been optimistic that their application would be successful, and the club had made it clear that it wanted an extra pick in the pre-season draft, believing that it would lose access to a young player without the additional pick it sought to create via shifting Polak.

In rejecting the Richmond application for Polak, the AFL drew a distinction between Polak and Essendon’s Adam Ramanauskas, who was permitted to be placed on the rookie list in 2006, when he was recovering from cancer treatment.

One of the obvious differences between the Polak and Ramanauskas cases was that whereas the Essendon’s bid was backed by rival clubs, the Richmond application was not supported by the bulk of the clubs, 14 of which made submissions, the majority opposed to the Richmond proposal. The AFL cited club opposition among the factors that led it to reject Richmond’s bid.

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou said the prospects of Richmond picking Cousins had no bearing on the decision to reject the Tigers’ application, the AFL boss saying that the league had given Cousins "the green light" by approving his application to enter the draft.

"He (Ramanauskas) was delisted, that was done before the national draft," said Demetriou. "He was not a contracted player at the time and the decision to put him then on the rookie list gave him an opportunity to remain in the AFL system."

Demetriou confirmed "the majority of clubs" were against the application — many because it represented a corruption of the rules — but added: "That was just one factor in the commission’s decision-making … when it was all said and done, we’ve got rules in place that deal exactly for this situation. The mechanism is there for Polak to be placed on the long-term injury list and a rookie elevated from the rookie list for as long as Polak is out of football."

RailCorp bosses let corruption flourish

THE RailCorp second-in-command, Gary Seabury, has been told to resign or face the sack from his $379,000 position following the most damning corruption inquiry conducted into NSW railways.

The RailCorp board, led by the former chairman, Ross Bunyon, and the former chief executive, Vince Graham, failed to manage properly the $17 billion state-owned corporation, letting "endemic and enduring corruption" flourish, according to a withering report by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Both Mr Bunyon and Mr Graham quit during the inquiry.

In a long-awaited report into RailCorp, released yesterday, ICAC recommends sweeping changes including a spill of the board, reviewing the chief executive’s position, an internal restructure and even new responsibilities for the Transport Minister, David Campbell.

More than $21 million was lost to graft and fraud during the period covered by the inquiry. The commission has recommended more than 660 charges against 33 staff and contractors, and it made 97 separate corruption findings against 31 people.

"Ultimate responsibility for preventing corruption in this critical public organisation is shared by RailCorp’s CEO, the RailCorp board and the Minister for Transport. It is incumbent upon them to break with past practices and improve oversight and action regarding corruption prevention," the report says.

It recommends reviewing the responsibilities of the proposed RailCorp Advisory Board, the chief executive and the minister "to determine whether they need to be restructured to better ensure financially responsible management that would limit the opportunity for corruption".

This is the seventh ICAC inquiry into the railways since 1992, and all have focused on procurement and improper relationships with contractors.

The report found that corruption was widespread despite the repeated findings of past investigations. "It is clear that the importance of preventing corruption in RailCorp was not a priority for the senior executive team," the report says.

"The commission’s investigation exposed endemic and enduring corruption in RailCorp … at many levels."

Like Mr Graham and Mr Bunyon, Mr Seabury, the group general manager of RailCorp’s asset management group, was not accused of involvement in any of the scams the commission uncovered.

But the report has found that "managerial competence" was so poor that all senior positions in his division undergo a review, with the jobs filled externally by candidates "with a demonstrated record in management and probity".

It also recommended that Mr Seabury’s position be similarly reviewed, and an independent expert be appointed for up to five years to oversee an overhaul of his division.

"It’s been agreed by the CEO and myself that that particular officer will be stood aside while there is further consideration to the implications of this report," Mr Campbell said yesterday.

But the Herald understands Mr Seabury’s name was put on a hit list within the Department of Premier and Cabinet more than a week before the report was delivered to Government, along with that of Fran Simons, a former head of human resources at the organisation.

Ms Simons was given notice last Friday. Her removal was not linked to the investigation but to the Government’s pledge to trim the senior public service.

At least two other general managers at RailCorp have also been dismissed as part of the cuts, and the Herald has been reliably informed there are several others to come.

Mr Seabury was told yesterday by the new chief executive, Rob Mason, that he should either resign or face dismissal.

The commission also found the Government must share responsibility for the devastating findings, after a string of poor decisions about how the railways were organised.

The Government gave only nine months’ notice of the 2004 merger of the former State Rail Authority and the Rail Infrastructure Corporation.

"The merger was consequently poorly planned and implemented," the report says.

"Opportunities for corruption were created through management and general staff having unclear roles."

Mr Campbell said he would ask the Auditor-General to advise on the implementation of the report’s recommendations.