Forced into backflip: Greg Hunt

Forced into backflip: Greg Hunt Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

EXCLUSIVE 

Greg Hunt was forced into a humiliating backflip by senior colleagues after the Environment Minister re-announced a half billion-dollar solar power policy without the Prime Minister’s permission. 

The Sun Herald can reveal Mr Hunt took his colleagues by surprise when he announced to an industry gathering last November that the Coalition was committed to its $500 million "one million solar roofs" program. 

Then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt visit Pure Solar, a solar energy company in Fyshwick, in March 2012.

Then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt visit Pure Solar, a solar energy company in Fyshwick, in March 2012.

Mr Hunt described the flagship solar program – which provided $500 rebates for installing one million rooftop solar energy systems over the next 10 years – as a
"shining beacon" of the Abbott government’s Direct Action climate policy. 

But Mr Hunt’s "shining beacon", a leftover from the 2010 election campaign, had not been approved by Prime Minister Tony Abbott or his top economic ministers. 

Mr Abbott’s lack of interest in climate change is understood by his colleagues, and has been a focus of media attention in the past week as he met with US President Barack Obama. 

Yet Mr Hunt effectively "went around" the Coalition leadership by announcing the policy, sources say, and in the months after his public pledge he was told the money would not be forthcoming. The Abbott government’s budget "razor gang" – the expenditure review committee charged with cutting spending across government – had already told ministers that unless a policy had been specifically confirmed at the 2013 election, it was no longer official government policy. 

Mr Hunt either ignored or did not receive that message. In his presentation to the Clean Energy Council on November 29 last year, he declared: "The government will provide $500 million for the one million solar roofs program."

He added a further $50 million each would be given to the solar towns and solar schools programs.

"Each of these three new programs is being prepared for implementation and will commence in the 2014-15 financial year," he said.

As the budget drew closer, Mr Hunt continued to assure industry figures that the solar policies would proceed, but bureaucrats in his department were privately conveying their pessimism. 

Mr Hunt was ultimately forced to abandon all but $2 million of his $600 million in promised policies. 

The 2014-15 budget allocated no money for solar roofs and nothing for solar schools. Just $2.1 million was given to the solar towns policy despite Mr Hunt promising $50 million in November. 

Mr Hunt declined to respond to a series of detailed questions about these events. Solar industry sources, some of whom received direct assurances from Mr Hunt, say they wonder how they can take the Environment Minister’s promises seriously. 

Industry leaders had already began to doubt the Abbott government’s commitment to the solar power program in December, when no money was allocated to it in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.   

But Mr Hunt continued to assert the policy was proceeding. A senior figure in the solar industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr Hunt was "fighting to the end" but the same optimism was not shared by bureaucrats in his department. "They were looking at the floor and shuffling their feet when they talked about it."

Kane Thornton, deputy chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, which hosted Mr Hunt for its annual meeting in which he made the $500 million policy pledge, said: "The million solar roofs program was a federal government election commitment, and it’s disappointing to see it abandoned before it had even begun. 

"It is a blow to low-income households," he added, saying it would also affect manufacturing jobs "created by the solar water heating industry". 

There are now concerns in the solar energy sector that the Abbott government will abandon other commitments in its review of the renewable energy target. The review is being led by Dick Warburton, former head of the manufacturing lobby group that opposed the carbon tax. 

Mark Butler, Labor's opposition spokesman on environment, said this was another example of the Abbott government breaking promises.

"This is a bit of a debacle really," Mr Butler told Sky News on Sunday morning.

"The problem is that Greg Hunt talked about this policy incessantly - one million solar roofs on households, solar towns, solar schools, it would [be] $600 million of expenditure and what we ended up with in the budget was $2 million," Mr Butler said.

"[This is] another broken promise by the government and this needs to be seen in the broader context of renewable energy policy."

with Sarah Whyte