The government might have the numbers – just – to edge the carbon tax though parliament later this year but the sheer weight of public opposition makes it a line-ball proposition at best.

This morning’s Neilsen poll, in which the government’s popularity sank to all-time lows, is not devastating in itself. It’s just a poll, albeit the first since the proposal went public in detail. Unless the tide of public opinion turns however, the carbon tax is unlikely to scrape through.

The rub for Julia Gillard is that only one quarter of the country backs her. That’s not enough to push through such a landmark reform. The public mandate is too skinny, the risk of parliamentary defections too fat. Only one member has to cross the floor. And bear in mind, Liberals crossed the floor to support the CPRS when Kevin Rudd was in power. It happens.

Will public support turn? In light of the unrelenting campaign against the government by talk-back radio and the Murdoch press – which controls 70 per cent of the newspaper market in the country – it’s unlikely. Opposing a tax is a no-brainer. The din won’t let up.

The rub for business is that the big polluters are unlikely to get a better deal. The hand-outs to coal and steel companies are enormous. Corporate Australia, should the tax proposal bite the dust, will suffer further uncertainty until some form of carbon pricing is brought in. Despite the wailing from the neo-flat-earth brigade and assorted lobby groups, a carbon price is inevitable.

And the earlier this economy is shaped and incentivised to shift to renewable energy solutions, the better. And although there is some merit to the argument that Australia should not be an early-adopter – as it will simply slug the economy while having a negligible effect on the earth’s climate – delays will only hurt the economy in the longer term.

There is the issue, too, of uncertainty. Uncertainty hurts business. While Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is polling so well, and while he vows to dump the tax if the Coalition gets up, business remains in a quandary. How to model? How to make long-term planning decisions?

Three months ago, BusinessDay polled the top 50 Australian companies over their view on climate policy. Stripping out the fence-sitting and the meaningless corporate rhetoric, only three companies were openly hostile to a carbon tax.

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 firms 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 firms with a clear interest in such a major economic change, including the 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 assistance.”

For the most part, big business knows it will get hit at some point. It 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 with the actual debate.

And as far as consumers go, somewhere along the way the climate message got lost. 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, the future of the planet. As the government too, capitulated to Orwellian propaganda about ‘creating jobs’ and so on, the argument descended from lofty ideals 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.