The Premier, Barry O’Farrell, has been forced into negotiations with the minor parties holding the balance of power in the upper house after a backlash against planned changes to the solar bonus scheme, with anger growing among his backbench before a party room meeting on Tuesday.
As the Energy Minister, Chris Hartcher, met MPs from the Shooters and Fishers Party and Christian Democratic Party, it emerged that a second government MP was considering breaking ranks, following Catherine Cusack’s letter to Mr O’Farrell criticising the plan on Wednesday.
The Herald has been told the MP for Riverstone, Kevin Conolly, informed Mr Hartcher he was considering crossing the floor.
Mr Conolly is one of a handful of western Sydney MPs whose victories were singled out by Mr O’Farrell after the election as an example of how the region could now place its trust in a Coalition government.
Asked about the conversation last night, Mr Conolly said: ‘‘I have not made a final decision on my position on the solar bonus scheme.’‘
Another government MP said he and his colleagues were under siege from constituents upset at the proposal, which would retrospectively cut the price paid to participants in the scheme for feeding electricity into the grid from solar panels from 60¢ a kilowatt hour to 40¢, and close it to new entrants.
‘‘They are getting absolutely smashed,’‘ the MP said. ‘‘Far and wide they are saying, ‘I’ve got 50 emails just today.’ People are going to attack the cabinet in the party room’‘.
At a news conference Mr O’Farrell defended the government’s plan, arguing it was the best way to fix a looming blowout of $759 million. He said if nothing was done the cost to family power bills would be about $170 over the five years to 2016.
However, he acknowledged that the Shooters and Fishers and Christian Democrats had indicated they would not support retrospective legislation to cut the feed-in tariff.
‘‘I’ll be sitting down with the Shooters and the Christian Democrats in the upper house in coming days,’‘ Mr O’Farrell said. ‘‘I’ll be explaining to them the details of the scheme [and] the details of our decision making.’‘
The Christian Democratic Party MP Fred Nile said he and his colleague, Paul Green, had agreed to join the Shooters and Fishers Party MPs Robert Brown and Robert Borsak in negotiations.
The government needs three of their four votes to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens.
Mr Nile, who received 4500 emails on the issue yesterday, said a number of amendments were suggested to Mr Hartcher in a meeting yesterday. One was to extend the scheme beyond its closing date of 2016 to give those facing tariff cuts time to recoup the cost of their solar panels.
However, the Greens are suggesting an amendment that would have electricity retailers bear the cost blowout. The Greens MP John Kaye said the retailers received electricity from the scheme free as it was paid for by adding to household bills.
Charging retailers the regulated electricity price would remove the need for a tariff cut and raise about 70 per cent of the funding shortfall. The rest would come from the government. Reopening the scheme to new entrants at a tariff of 20¢ would keep the industry afloat.
The chief executive of the Australian Solar Energy Society, John Grimes, said the proposal had merit but that he would meet minor party MPs on Tuesday and remained opposed to retrospective legislation.
Mr O’Farrell said Ms Cusack would not be punished for criticising the policy in her letter to him, which was sent to all government MPs.
Ms Cusack is contacting Country Energy to propose reducing her family’s tariff from 60¢ to 40¢ to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.