Economic regulator looking for balance

LEGISLATION to establish a new economic regulation authority passed State Parliament with only minor amendments last week despite generating heated debate earlier in the year.

Opposition leader Colin Barnett and Greens MP Dee Margetts had criticised the authority on the basis it may damage economic development (Barnett) and the public interest (Margetts).

The new authority will absorb several existing regulators covering the electricity, gas, water, and rail freight industries.

It will include the Office of Gas Access Regulation, chaired by Ken Michael, which is involved in the long-running controversy over tariffs on the Dampier to Bunbury natural gas pipeline.

Dr Michael, who has also been acting as independent rail access regulator, has not formally commented on future plans.

However it is understood he will remain until the gas tariff issue is resolved but is not expected to continue long term as chair of the new authority, which is scheduled to commence operations on January1 next year.

The legislative amendments passed last week include a requirement for a joint standing committee of the parliament to review the operations of the authority after two years.

The original bill had proposed a review after five years.

The amendments also removed a limitation on the number of members that can be appointed to the authority.

There was originally a limit of three.

The legislation allows members to be appointed on either a full time or part-time basis.

If the authority is asked to prepare a report on a non-regulated industry, the report must be tabled in parliament. Previously, tabling of the report would have been at the discretion of the minister.

Treasurer Eric Ripper said the authority would have the job of balancing consumers’ interests – including business customers – with the need for a regulatory regime that encouraged private sector investment.

The authority would create a ‘one-stop shop’ for industry regulation.

Mr Ripper said WA had important monopoly controlled economic infrastructure that private sector operators wanted to use.

“The rules about who can use what infrastructure, when and at what cost, are critical to the economic development of the State,” he said. “A key task of the regulator will be to govern these arrangements in a fair, independent and transparent way.

“The regulator will also play a crucial role in safeguarding consumers as the WA electricity and gas markets move from monopoly providers to a more competitive market with wider consumer choice.”

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