CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
The albatross around the government's neck
, August 20, 2011
Despite being locked into her carbon tax, Julia Gillard has now concluded it is unsellable.
She no doubt hopes the Australian electorate will put it out of their collective minds so that the measure can quietly pass through the Parliament and become a fact of life instead of the incendiary political issue it has been for the past six months.
After promising to wear out her shoe-leather to convince Australians that the tax is good for them, the country and the globe, the Prime Minister has surreptitiously moved on to other issues.
These back-to-the-business-of-government matters include the future funding of aged care, financial reform of the health system, and the ongoing asylum-seeker problem. The Prime Minister’s strategy is clearly to show there is much more to her government than the small matter of a tax on carbon dioxide emissions.
The sudden abandonment of the tax so soon into the selling phase is stunning, but it is also doubtful whether the strategy will work.
So far Ms Gillard is walking from the tax only in a figurative sense, pretending it is just one item on the agenda, albeit “a difficult reform”.
If the economic turmoil hitting world markets spills over into Australia’s economy, it is likely the carbon tax will have to be dropped or postponed indefinitely.
New South Wales Opposition leader John Roberston became the first senior Labor figure to muddy the water on the tax, according to News Limited reports.
The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported that Mr Robertson told his Caucus colleagues he would not be publicly supporting Ms Gillard on the carbon tax.
Within 24 hours he was forced to clarify his stance, claiming he still supported “putting a price on carbon”, and describing the initiative as “a significant reform”.
But the reality is that the silence of most of the Gillard frontbench is deafening.
Everyone with any serious ambition has left it to Cimate Change Minister Greg Combet to do all the heavy lifting on his own.
After an extended winter break, most Labor MPs will return to the Parliament knowing the tax is practically unsellable.
It will take only one federal backbencher or one former Labor MP to come out against the tax for the floodgates to open.
Ms Gillard had originally assured the Labor Caucus that the announcement of the details of the tax would put an end to Tony Abbott’s scare campaign.
In fact, it only served to galvanise the public’s anger.
Voters organised their own grassroots “return-to-sender” campaign when the Government’s direct mail pamphlet arrived in the post, sending tens of thousands back to the Government.
Now Ms Gillard is saying everything will be better once people see the minimalist nature of the tax and when they see the tax and family payment benefits which will flow to them.
The main game now is the economy and how badly ours will be affected by the growing problems in the United States and Europe.
The problem for the Gillard Government is that every business that starts to suffer, every shop that shuts its doors for good, every person who is laid off, and every mortgage that goes sour, will be potentially sheeted home to the effects of the proposed carbon tax.
Australia has enjoyed 17 years of positive economic growth, a period unparalleled in history, with people into their late 30s with no real memories of a recession.
Tax breaks and changes to family support are quickly forgotten whereas electricity and gas bills will rise each quarter once the tax is operational.
The worrying thing for Ms Gillard is that her political judgment and instincts are now being questioned by her colleagues.
True, she is an excellent parliamentary performer, but Labor MPs are increasingly recalling her failed Medicare Gold policy and her Building the Education Revolution debacle rather than her successes.
A political leader can be unpopular with colleagues and be seen as aloof and unapproachable; but once faith in the leader’s ability to lead goes, there is no turning back.
Ms Gillard may not be able to drop the carbon tax, which she made the centrepiece policy of her prime ministership, but the next Labor leader will probably have no choice.