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The next federal election in Australia will inevitably be a referendum on an uncovenanted carbon tax.

ON Friday, February 25, this year, the day after Julia Gillard had announced she would be introducing a carbon tax, she was interviewed by Alan Jones. He asked her to explain how she could say “I rule out a carbon tax” before the election and then rule it in.

She said: “Well, Alan, let me answer that. In the last election campaign I talked consistently about how climate change was real, it was caused by human activity, that we needed to cut down on carbon pollution and that the best way of doing that was to price carbon through a market-based mechanism, and that’s what I announced yesterday.” For good measure she added: “Rather than play any semantic word games, I was frank enough with the Australian people to say that the first few years would work effectively like a tax.”

Note the tactics. First there’s an undertaking to answer the question. Second, there’s a very long, sly sentence that evades the question and never acknowledges she has reversed a policy. Finally she congratulates herself for her frankness in likening the mechanism to a tax, when she might instead have engaged in semantic bluster.

It makes you wonder whether her life before politics involved telling a lot of whoppers and getting away with them. It’s hard to imagine her straitlaced parents, Moira and John, putting up with that sort of thing, but perhaps they were so protective of their physically frail younger daughter or so besotted with her that they just turned a blind eye.

Fortunately, the public instinctively know when a politician is telling them bare-faced lies and they tend to take it personally. Gillard’s polling numbers plummeted almost immediately and have never looked like recovering. You’d think she might have learned from the experience, but as recently as Thursday she was engaging in more verbal fudging on the same subject.

She said: “Now, what Tony Abbott likes to refer to as a carbon tax, a fixed-price period for an emissions trading scheme, is a period I believe should be as short as possible. So people have heard a lot of debate about a carbon tax and today can I say to Australians the debate that they are hearing about a carbon tax is a debate about what Tony Abbott calls a carbon tax.”

As the opposition and print media were quick to point out, in April she hadn’t shied away from the word tax repeatedly, let alone attempted to insinuate that the term was a rhetorical feint from Abbott. She said then: “Oh, look, I’m happy to use the word tax. I understand some silly little collateral debate has broken out today. I mean, how ridiculous. This is a market-based mechanism.”

The most charitable gloss that could be put on this is that some dopey spinmeister thought it would be a good idea to blunt the attack on the tax by rebadging it a carbon price and had put the word out to ministers that they should try to associate the phrase carbon tax with the Opposition Leader. However, it has the too-clever-by-half hallmark of the Prime Minister – it’s a transparent ploy that takes us all for fools – and since no one else tried the same tactic it’s reasonable to conclude it’s all her own work. It gave Abbott a perfect opportunity to describe her as “untrustworthy and tricky”.

There are some within the Gillard government who imagine that, with an announcement of the details of the carbon tax expected next week, the going will get a little easier. A careful reading of the Lowy Institute’s new polling on climate change should disabuse them on that score.

Of the sample, 75 per cent described the government’s overall handling of the issue as poor and 39 per cent described it as very poor. Only 3 per cent said it was very good. Obviously on such a contentious issue it’s not possible to please everyone, but to have left such a substantial majority disaffected takes some doing.

Support for the most aggressive response to climate change fell four points from last year, down to 41 per cent.

This option now enjoys a similar level of support to the milder option of taking a gradual, low-cost approach, at 40 per cent.

This is dramatically different from the polling in 2006 when 68 per cent supported an aggressive response and only 24 per cent favoured a gradual approach.

The most sceptical option, doing nothing until we’re sure there’s a problem, is up six points from last year to 19 per cent and has nearly tripled since 2006, when it was just 7 per cent. Support for this option is strongest among the 60 and older age group, at 28 per cent.

The sample was also asked how much extra it was prepared to pay a month on power bills to help address climate change.

The most popular option, paying nothing extra, attracted 39 per cent support, up six points from last year and nearly double the 21 per cent who opted for nothing when the question was first asked in 2008.

Those who said they were prepared to pay between $1 and $10 a month extra fell from 32 per cent in 2008 to 25 per cent last year to 19 per cent this year. Those prepared to pay between $11 and $20 a month fell from 20 per cent in 2008 to 15 per cent last year and 13 per cent this year.

Those true believers who said they were prepared to pay more than $20 a month slightly increased, from 19 per cent in 2008 and 2010 to 22 per cent this year.

With the single exception of that three-point increase, the trends in the Lowy polling are all pointing in one direction.

Clearly the last time to take an aggressive policy to an election in Australia with any hope of winning was back in early 2009, when Kevin Rudd got cold feet about a double dissolution.

The next federal election will inevitably be a referendum on an uncovenanted carbon tax that in three short years will morph into the world’s first economy-wide ETS.

The Australian, 2 July 2011