Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Julia Gillard

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Prime minister of Australia
Canberra, Australia

Reversing a campaign pledge, the Labor Party leader bets her job on a plan to tax greenhouse-gas emissions.

When Julia Gillard took over as Australia’s prime minister last year, her predecessor served as a pretty good cautionary example. After all, the political opening Gillard seized upon to win her job was presented after Kevin Rudd botched efforts to pass a law taxing greenhouse-gas emitters.

Gillard seemed to heed the lesson. “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead,” she said while campaigning.

And yet, today Gillard is championing a massive new climate bill complete with a carbon tax—and risking her political life in the process.

Nudged out onto this limb by the politics of coalition-building, Gillard chose to make her about-face in order to align her Labor Party with the newly influential Green Party, concluding that a bold carbon tax is, after all, what Australia needs to fight climate change. Whether you see the move as politically expedient or as a principled course correction, there’s no denying the risk that it entails in a country where climate change is a wildly contentious issue.

Brave Thinkers 2011Currently, about 80 percent of the country’s electricity comes from coal, helping to make Australia the worst per capita carbon polluter among wealthy nations. Australia is also the world’s leading coal exporter, and vocal factions of the powerful mining industry say the tax scheme will destroy jobs and sink the economy. Such fears help explain the prime minister’s horrendous job-approval numbers.

Still, Gillard is resolute. She says that by targeting industrial polluters, Australia can, by 2020, accomplish the equivalent of removing 45 million cars from the road. And by 2050, Australia hopes to have cut emissions by 80 percent from its 2000 levels. When Parliament decides the issue this fall, the vote will be close, but Gillard expects to prevail. “This is going through,” she has said. “This is done. Full stop.” Of course, she’s been wrong before.


Illustration: Anje Jager

Presented by

Geoffrey Gagnon is an Atlantic senior editor

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