CANBERRA (Reuters) - Two thirds of Australians want a snap election on the government’s controversial plan to tax carbon pollution, a poll showed on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard crosses the nation in a campaign-style blitz to sell the scheme.
The plan will be put to the vote in parliament around October and is almost certain to pass, but a rebuff would seriously threaten Gillard’s minority government.
The government, which does not have to call elections until 2013, has announced big fines for firms trying to overcharge consumers because of the tax, set to start next July and switch to carbon emissions trading in mid-2015.
A Galaxy poll for News Ltd newspapers, the first since the scheme’s weekend unveiling, showed only a third of voters favor of the tax, while 68 percent thought they would be worse off, despite promised compensation for millions of households fearing higher energy bills.
The danger is that a vigorous advertising campaign by the opposition conservatives and business groups opposed to the tax could erode public support even further and frighten Labor MPs into dumping Gillard.
The package has the broad support of the Greens and independents, although independents have yet to support extra measures to protect steelmakers and coal industry jobs.
Green groups hope the tax package will aid global efforts to fight carbon pollution, but Australian voters are largely unconvinced and the government’s popularity has plummeted. Two polls this week showed Labor would be thrashed by conservative rivals opposed to a carbon price, and plans to tax mining companies on profits.
Similar schemes unveiled over the past decade were blocked repeatedly by parliament, leading to the downfall of two opposition leaders and former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who Gillard unseated last year due to his plummeting popularity.
“Julia Gillard is showing extraordinary courage and conviction in putting forward this plan which will ensure our long-term prosperity and environmental sustainability,” Gillard’s Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said in Melbourne when asked about the potentially disastrous poll numbers.
A key measure of Australian consumer confidence slid to a two-year low in July as households grew more pessimistic about the outlook for the economy and their finances, partly due to concerns about the carbon tax.
But ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service said the proposed carbon price would not weigh heavily on the ratings of corporate issuers, while Standard & Poor’s said it did not see an immediate impact on its ratings of local energy companies.
Since unveiling the scheme Gillard has promised to “wear out her shoe leather” criss-crossing the country, visiting shopping malls, mines and steel factories to convince voters to back her plan to cut the rich world’s highest per capita level of greenhouse emissions by 5 percent within a decade.
A tabloid newspaper cartoon on Wednesday depicted Gillard dressed as pop music sensation Lady Gaga -- currently playing to full houses in Australia -- and embarking on a parallel but less popular “carbon tax tour.”
Gillard’s conservative rival Tony Abbott, a combative former seminarian, has been making ground by arguing the tax will wreak havoc on the A$1.3 trillion ($1.38 trillion) economy and cost thousands of jobs.
But Abbott too hit trouble with his campaign, visiting a coal mine just before European steel giant ArcelorMittal and U.S. miner Peabody Energy launched a $5 billion bid for Australia’s Macarthur Coal that Gillard said torpedoed his warnings of business chaos. ($1 = 0.943 Australian Dollars)
Editing by Ed Davies and Daniel Magnowski