Greg Hunt kept Prime Minister in dark on solar policy

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.

Fairfax Media can reveal that 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 ''1 Million Solar Roofs'' program. Mr Hunt described the flagship solar program - which was to have provided $500 rebates for installing 1 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 keenly understood by his colleagues, and has been a focus of media attention in the past week as he met 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 - 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, the Environment Minister declared: ''The government will provide $500 million for the 1 Million Solar Roofs program. And a further $50 million each,'' he added, 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.''

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 questions from Fairfax Media.

Solar industry sources say they wonder how they can take the Environment Minister's promises seriously. A senior figure in the solar industry said Mr Hunt was ''fighting to the end'' but the same optimism was not shared by bureaucrats in his department.

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

The story Greg Hunt kept Prime Minister in dark on solar policy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop