'The rub for Gillard is that only a quarter of the country backs her.

‘The rub for Gillard is that only a quarter of the country backs her.” Photo: Reuters

WHEN it comes to climate change, and what the government should do about it, no two opinions are the same. Except, of course, for the noisy yet dwindling ranks of the neo-flat-earth society.

And so it is that many will find this writer’s view of the appropriate policy response, in the immortal words of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, “crap”.

For what it’s worth, this complicated $100 billion overhaul of the economy’s redistribution is a cumbersome means to a necessary end … pricing carbon.

That said, it is undeniable – even if the government now has the numbers to edge its carbon tax though Parliament later this year – that the sheer weight of public opposition to the tax makes it a lineball proposition at best.

Yesterday’s Nielsen poll, in which the government’s popularity sank to record lows, is not devastating in itself. It’s just another poll, albeit the first since the proposal went public in detail. Unless public opinion turns though, the carbon tax is unlikely to scrape through in its present form.

The rub for Gillard is that only a quarter of the country backs her. That’s hardly enough to push through such a big reform. The public mandate is too skinny, the risk of parliamentary defections too fat. Only one member has to cross the floor. Bear in mind Liberals crossed the floor to support the carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS) when Kevin Rudd was in power.

The question is, will public support turn? In light of the unrelenting campaign against the government by talkback radio and the Murdoch press, it’s unlikely. Not when you have 70 per cent of the newspaper market in the country against you and you are trying to sell a tax. The din won’t let up.

The rub for business is that a carbon price is inevitable, at some point, and the big polluters are unlikely to get a better deal. The handouts to coal and steel companies are enormous. Corporate Australia, should this tax proposal bite the dust, will only endure further uncertainty until some form of carbon pricing is introduced.

And the earlier this economy is shaped and given incentives to shift to cleaner energy, the better. Although there is merit to the argument that Australia should not be an early adopter – as it will simply slug economic growth while having virtually no effect on the earth’s climate – further delays bringing some form of carbon price will only hurt the economy in the longer term.

There is the issue, too, of uncertainty. Uncertainty hurts business.

Three months ago, BusinessDay polled the top 50 Australian companies on their view of climate policy. Even though any meaningful policy response would be against the immediate interests of every company, most who responded realised the inevitability of a price on carbon.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

”Twelve of the 50 backed Canberra’s plan to introduce a carbon price, including some of the country’s biggest emitters. However, this support is heavily qualified with calls for compensation for trade-exposed, emissions-intensive industries that would be disadvantaged relative to overseas rivals.

”Three companies flatly opposed the move – Woodside, BlueScope and Coca-Cola Amatil said Australia shouldn’t move before rivals overseas and pricing carbon threatened already struggling sectors.

”Eight of the top 50 were uncommitted, while the remaining 27 companies did not respond to the survey.

”This group included companies with a clear interest in such a big economic change, including Commonwealth Bank, Rio Tinto and Leighton.

”Qantas, BHP Billiton, Newcrest Mining, AGL Energy and Incitec Pivot all supported a carbon price, on the proviso that trade-exposed businesses were compensated for loss of competitiveness to overseas rivals. Qantas, for example, now faces a carbon price in Europe, New Zealand and Australia – and the company said it was discussing a ‘range of options’ for help.”

For the most part, big business realises a carbon price is inevitable. But when it comes to campaigning it is only the climate detractors whose voices are loud and whose cries are heard. These cries are magnified by sections of the media, far out of proportion to the actual debate.

As far as consumers go, somewhere along the way the climate message got lost. Too many people are hung up on whether a politician told a lie. Two years ago, 60 per cent of the population was in favour of action on climate. But when the action finally came, the numbers plunged. No longer was this about sea levels and the future of the planet.

As the government too capitulated to Orwellian propaganda about ”creating jobs” and so on, the argument descended from the science to the hip pocket.

Once again, if they’d just jettisoned the focus groups and told the truth they would have done better. Now, it’s hard to argue there is a mandate from the people.