National News

'Big stick' energy bill passes upper house

New laws to hold energy companies to account have passed parliament's upper house, despite the Greens arguing the legislation prolongs the life of coal-fired power.

The Senate on Tuesday passed the so-called "big stick" legislation with Labor not standing in the way of the final vote.

The bill will hold energy companies to account in three ways:

* requiring retailers to pass on "sustained and substantial" reductions in costs to consumers;

* penalising generators that withhold electricity contracts for the purpose of substantially lessening market competition;

* banning generators from manipulating the spot market, for example by withholding supply to inflate prices.

It provides the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission with a series of remedies, from public warning notices which name and shame companies to fines, civil penalties, contracting orders and divestiture orders.

The Federal Court will be able to order the greater of: a $10 million fine, three times the value of the benefit the company gained from engaging in the prohibited conduct, or 10 per cent of turnover.

The court could also force a company to sell an asset or assets to an unrelated third party.

The laws will sunset on January 1, 2026, following the conclusion of the ACCC's inquiry into the national electricity market.

The government amended its bill, which will return to the lower house later in the month for final approval, to give the treasurer power to protect worker entitlements when companies are divested.

Labor lost a bid to ensure further protections guaranteeing conditions not included in official agreements.

Earlier, Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, who represents Western Australia, took aim at supporters of the bill for helping drive the nation towards dangerous climate change.

"How dare any of you suggest that in this moment at this time it is appropriate to be prosecuting a piece of legislation with the aim of propping up coal," he told the chamber.

"You are no better than a bunch of arsonists - borderline arsonists - and you should be ashamed."

Despite objections from Labor frontbencher Murray Watt, Senator Steele-John refused to withdraw his comments, insisting they were true.

"For Senator Steele-John to refer to members of this chamber as arsonists on the very day that we are told by fire chiefs that we are seeing conditions that this country has never seen before is beyond offensive," Senator Watt said.

He called for the Greens to reflect on "political point-scoring" they were engaging in as fires raged across Australia.

Senator Steele-John argued the so-called "big stick" laws will help keep outdated coal-fired power stations open and contribute to climate change.

He said the fires were not a natural disaster because humans were contributing to climate change by burning coal.

"There will come a time when the Australian community shall look back on this moment and ask what we were doing to help as they were fighting fires on the front," the Greens senator said.

© AAP 2019