In politics and elsewhere, it is wise to challenge orthodoxies. These days the fashionable view is that Kevin Rudd erred, around this time last year, when he junked Labor’s emissions trading scheme.

Or, more accurately, the Rudd government deferred the introduction of a carbon pollution reduction scheme until 2013.

This criticism overlooks a crucial question. Namely, precisely why did Labor abandon the scheme? Strangely, this question was not directed to the former prime minister when he appeared on the Q&A program on April 4.

It is as if many who talk about climate change do not want to know the answer. Here it is. Labor junked the scheme because it believed that, if it took this policy to the election later in the year, it would be defeated by the Coalition led by Tony Abbott.

In breaking this story in the Herald on April 27 last year, Lenore Taylor wrote: “The Rudd government has shelved its emissions trading scheme for at least three years in a bid to defuse Tony Abbott’s ‘great big new tax’ attack in this year’s election campaign.”

According to reports, it was the NSW Labor right-wing machine operators Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar who first put it to Rudd that the scheme should be abandoned. It appears that, inside the cabinet, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan supported a delay, with Penny Wong and Lindsay Tanner favouring a no-surrender policy. Rudd reluctantly went along with Gillard and Swan.

It’s a matter of opinion. However, the evidence suggests that the likes of Arbib, Bitar, Gillard and Swan were correct and they managed to save Labor from outright defeat last August. Those who maintain that Rudd was deauthorised and Labor imploded when the scheme was abandoned, overlook the reason why the decision was taken. Rudd’s replacement by Gillard was essentially unrelated to climate-change policy, if only because the two agreed on the carbon pollution reduction scheme’s deferment strategy.

The same reasoning motivated Gillard’s statement on Channel Ten, virtually on the eve of the election, that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. Labor was worried that Abbott would win the election if he could convince voters that it would introduce a carbon tax.

Once again Gillard and her advisers were correct in reading the mood of the electorate. Yesterday’s Herald/Nielsen poll supports this analysis. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that Labor will introduce a carbon tax, to be replaced in time by an emissions trading scheme, Labor’s support has fallen to 44 per cent on a two-party preferred measurement. Moreover, only 34 per cent of Australians support a carbon tax, with 59 per cent opposed.

There is another factor here. It can be classified as the Chifley flaw. The Labor hero Ben Chifley led the ALP to a convincing victory in September 1946 over the newly created Liberal Party and its leader, Robert Menzies. Then, in August 1947, Chifley decided to nationalise the private banks. This was announced in a 42-word statement without supporting detail. There was no clarifying statement for a full month and, even then, there was doubt as to the extent of Labor’s intentions.

In early 1947 Menzies was an unpopular opposition leader contemplating retirement. By late 1947 he was on his way to The Lodge. The Coalition used the uncertainty of Labor’s bank nationalisation plans to create doubts about job security in the banking and insurance industries and to worry bank depositors and borrowers alike. The Chifley government was comprehensively defeated in December 1949 and Menzies remained prime minister until January 1966.

There is a consensus that climate change is occurring. However, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has acknowledged that it is only 90 per cent certain that global warming is caused by human activity. There has been an attempt to silence the sceptics by ridicule.

The essential problem with the case put by Labor, under the leadership of Rudd and now Gillard, is that the government has been unable to convince Australians why we should introduce a carbon tax before the rest of the world – including such key nations as the US, Canada, Japan, China and India. As Gary Banks, the Productivity Commission chairman, said in a speech last month, no country applies “economy-wide CO2 emissions taxes or quota schemes”.

Labor is having difficulties selling its carbon tax proposals in suburban and regional Australia where medium to small businesses prevail, where there is a genuine fear of unemployment and where many struggle to pay power bills.

It is here where those industries – that Senator Bob Brown and the Greens like to term the “big polluters” – are located. Viewed from the suburbs and regional centres, these businesses are more accurately classified as the “big employers”.

Rudd and Gillard dropped the carbon pollution reduction scheme last year because Tony Abbott successfully presented it as a jobs-destroying big new tax. The polls indicate that he is succeeding in applying a similar tag to the proposed carbon tax.

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