Barry's Solar Retreat a Political Headache

Article by Kate Sikora and Geoff Chambers, The Daily Telegraph

PREMIER Barry O’Farrell made a plea for unity in the party room yesterday after he was told by his own MPs to fix the solar bonus scheme or face an all-out mutiny.

In a heated joint party room meeting, Mr O’Farrell told his MPs that the solar policy was hurting the party and conceded that the next three weeks would be challenging.

“We’ve got a rough road ahead of us,” party room sources quoted Mr O’Farrell as saying.

In a sign that Mr O’Farrell is fearing unrest in his party, he reminded all MPs to “stay united” and not continue to make public outbursts against the government’s solar policy.

Energy Minister Chris Hartcher has been handed a two week window to clean up the $1.9 billion solar bonus scheme “disaster”.

Mr Hartcher must find a way to sell the solar bonus scheme cut from the 60c/kWh feed-in tariff to 40c/kWh to the public and upper house crossbenchers.

Mr O’Farrell and Mr Hartcher announced yesterday that a “hardship provisions” package would be set up to help those hurt by the scheme. But they said there would be a “consultation” period before details of the compromise were worked out.

The package is likely to cut into the $470 million Mr O’Farrell has promised to save by cutting the tariffs.

But Mr O’Farrell’s own MPs yesterday attacked the proposal.

Solar industry leaders estimated the package could cost taxpayers tens of millions. The relief package would target pensioners, low-income households and even some farmers who took out loans to pay for solar panels, ranging in price from $15,000 to $25,000.

The hardship scheme has failed to convince all MPs it will solve the problem, with many expressing concern in the meeting they wanted the issue resolved.

“There needs to be more detail,” one MP said. “It is a shocking situation we’ve been left in and we just want it resolved.”

Upper house MP Catherine Cusack, who wrote a letter last week opposing the policy, was emotional when she addressed the party but vowed not to cross the floor when the legislation came before parliament.

“She was a bit teary,” one MP said. “Barry asked all MPs to air their issues internally and not like last week when they were expressing their views publicly.”

Government MPs who spoke against the scheme retrospective legislation in the meeting included Troy Grant, Bart Bassett, Kevin Conolly, Andrew Fraser, Steve Cansdell and Mark Speakman.

Shooters and Fishers Party MP Robert Brown questioned the hardship program benefits.

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