Mercury cut-off not unjustified
In the midst of public outrage, and in the absence of any sense of unbiased objectivity, Mercury Energy has crumbled to the cries of the anti-corporatists. There was little more Mercury Energy could do once Prime Minister Helen Clark jumped into the dispute, less so once she took the side of the family in question. But amidst her accusations of a “hard-nosed commercial attitude” and Maori Party SOEs spokesman Pita Sharples’ of “corporate manslaughter”, an important detail has been missed and an entire side of a story ignored.
Mercury Energy’s statement, shortly after the revelations, made it clear that they “were simply unaware that loss of electricity to the household was putting a vulnerable customer at risk”. In other words, they had not been told that the situation was life-or-death. As far as they knew, this was any other family that had continually failed to pay their bills. Their ability to pay bills is irrelevant: it is unreasonable to expect any company or person to provide a service they are not getting paid for, at least, not in this world. So, Mercury Energy disconnected their power. If I wasn’t paying my bills, I wouldn’t expect to have power in my house. Why should anyone else?
Of course, this wasn’t just anyone else, and there are those who will argue that Mercury Energy should have known, or taken steps to find out. The latter argument lacks purely on grounds of feasability. For Mercury Energy to extensively investigate every disconnection they make prior to making it would consume thousands of working hours a month, and since there is no disconnection fee, the cost of this will end up being passed on to paying customers. Rather, the responsibility must lie with the consumer—in this case the Muliagas—to inform the company that the situation requires special attention.
Sadly, the Muliagas failed to alert Mercury Energy of the situation, leaving only the curiousity and observance of the contractor to rely on, for the company to know. Given that the contractor’s job is, and is only, to disconnect the power, one would be relying on pure chance for him to understand the case. In fact, he talked to the family, giving them several opportunities to explain, and they took not one of them. The argument that he could see the machine is weak. He is not a doctor. It is not in his capacity to make that sort of judgement. It is the responsbility of the family to inform him, and inform him they did not. In fact, the revelation that it was medication, not the electrical breathing equipment, that was keeping Mrs Muliaga alive, should serve to show the sort of judgement this involved. Admit it—you wouldn’t have guessed. You didn’t even know she was on medication. Thus, it is not a common-sense call. It is a professional one, and one that the contractor is not in a position to make.
As is normally the case with deaths and companies, this series of events was met with an insane overreaction. The Prime Minister effectively forced Mercury Energy to make a U-turn on its defensive stance, arguing that they should not be allowed to attempt to defend themselves at all. One could only imagine the sort of implications the disallowing of defence would bring. Is it really fair to criticise the U-turn on the basis of “public relations” rather than genuinity? Given that Mercury had been backed into a corner, probably not. Rather than jumping to conclusions and taking sides, as Trevor Mallard himself warned against, an objective, impartial investigation must be carried out. Mercury Energy should have been allowed to stand up for itself.