MP Revolt May Set Sun On A Solar Deal

After a pretty good start, things aren’t going so well for NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell.

In fact, they’re starting to go fairly badly wrong.

First, there was his imaginary budget black hole, which turned out not to be a black hole, but a piece of bizarre political posturing that only made him look like a rank amateur.

Then there was the hasty departure of the treasury secretary, who was sent on “gardening leave” and humiliated over the imaginary black-hole affair. Now, O’Farrell has copped the mother of all bucketings from his former frontbench environment spokeswoman, Catherine Cusack.

Cusack, in a career-limiting move, has written an extraordinarily withering letter to the Premier outlining why his retrospective changes to consumer contracts under the Solar Bonus Scheme are “unprecedented and repugnant”.

To come up with “savings” to plug his imaginary black hole, O’Farrell is proposing to slash the tariff from 60c to 40c for every kilowatt consumers transfer to the electricity grid, despite the Coalition repeatedly assuring voters before the state election they would do no such thing.

On O’Farrell’s website, the Liberal policy was outlined as “The NSW Liberal & Nationals policy will ensure that NSW leads Australia in establishing a decentralised energy sector, by honouring the state government’s current commitments and improving the scheme to make it more effective”.

But by last Thursday, when Cusack’s letter broke as Labor MP Luke Foley discovered, those words had mysteriously disappeared. It seems O’Farrell doesn’t like to look like a liar on his own website.

Cusack’s letter is all the more extraordinary because it is so brave – in a time when brave politicians are fast disappearing.

It is intelligent, clever, and completely demolishes the basis of O’Farrell’s decision to cut the tariff.

Cusack explains, with crystal-clear clarity, why the proposed tariff change is unnecessary, unfair, and counter-productive.

In one cutting paragraph, she accuses the Premier of betraying Liberal and conservative ideology, and says the policy will cause “deliberate and disproportionate harm” to investors in the scheme, who acted in good faith when entering into the contracts.

Clearly Cusack knows the policy better than almost anyone else, and is deeply annoyed that she was overlooked for Cabinet when she had every expectation she would get a frontbench position.

And, on reading her letter, it’s almost impossible to understand why O’Farrell wouldn’t want a talented, intelligent female from country NSW to serve him in a ministerial role.

Cusack hails from Lennox Head, on the Far North Coast, which my wife also calls home.

And it will be extremely interesting to see how the Premier handles this backbench revolt.

As it is, his ludicrous scheme to enact retrospective legislation to undo contracts is almost certainly doomed to fail.

No sane member of the Upper House crossbench will support it and indeed, most of them have publicly said they won’t.

Which only leaves the question as to why O’Farrell has bothered with the whole malarky in the first place?

The only reason I can come up with is that he’s desperate to be seen to be doing something. Why he’s chosen to do something that will achieve very little, except from really upsetting 120,000 voters, is a complete mystery.

Before the election, I used to ponder about the sort of premier O’Farrell would be.

The signs were never very good that he’d be a reformer. After all, to get elected, all he had to do was not be a member of the Labor Party.

But his early decisions, such as reducing the power of the treasury, seemed quite promising.

For the sake of NSW, I hoped that we might actually get something done – like build the M4 East, for example. Or build the North West rail link. Or extend light rail.

But instead what we’ve seen is a series of blunders, like the one Catherine Cusack is so incensed about, and a series of announcements about the setting up of “task forces” and “reviews” and “focus groups”.

O’Farrell is also reorganising the public sector, as if anybody cares who the various departmental heads are.

So far it seems like a lot of fiddling at the edges, rather than achieving any real reform.

After 16 years’ wallowing on the opposition benches, it’s hard to believe that O’Farrell has bogged himself down in reviews of projects that, by all accounts, can be rolled out without major delay.

The plans are ready, and all we need is a bit of political leadership and will to deliver them.

But it seems that this is too much to ask. And it’s a pity.

Paul Howes is national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union

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