President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is fighting a rear-guard action to accomplish via regulation what voters rejected via Congress: ruinously expensive restrictions on carbon emissions in the name of fighting "global warming." This is perhaps partly out of the administration’s own convictions, but also because Mr. Obama knows that a large slice of his left-wing base is clamoring for such measures. But before he goes much further down that road, he should take a look at how a similar political calculation is playing out in Australia. In short, not well.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in office for less than a year, is pushing forward with a carbon tax Down Under. The measure is hugely unpopular—its announcement this week pushed Ms. Gillard’s Labor Party to its lowest popularity ever in an opinion poll conducted for The Australian newspaper (owned by News Corporation, which also owns the publisher of this newspaper). Labor shouldn’t be surprised. The idea of a carbon tax was so controversial before last August’s election that Ms. Gillard promised not to enact one as a ploy to win votes. Members of her administration have repeated that refrain, to proverbial applause, several times since.
Why, then, has Labor been so politically foolish as to revive the idea? Because Ms. Gillard has been backed into a political corner by anti-carbon advocates on the far left. Under her leadership, Labor failed to win a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate in that August vote, so she governs in an uneasy coalition with a clutch of independent and Green Party legislators.
The leader of those Greens, Bob Brown, has used his kingmaker sway to pull Ms. Gillard steadily leftward ever since, including inducing her to oppose tougher border protection and to support same-sex marriage. The new carbon tax proposal is part and parcel of that.
The situation bears some striking similarities to events in the U.S., although the details are different. In America, voters have shown again and again their distaste for carbon taxation or cap-and-trade emissions regulation in the name of slowing global warming. Enthusiasts’ ambitions finally collapsed last year when the Senate, controlled by Democrats, couldn’t agree to hold a debate on even the most loophole-ridden version of cap-and-trade.
Meanwhile, although Mr. Obama is not beholden to a small band of congressional swing voters who support carbon regulation in the way Ms. Gillard must heed the Greens, he’s in a box of a different sort. He actually did campaign in support of carbon regulation, declaring his nomination to lead the Democratic presidential ticket as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." This suggests that among his electoral base, and among his supporters in Congress, is a small but potentially important minority who want him to follow through on the promise implied by that grandiose claim.
Mr. Obama at least has the luxury of going about it in a stealthier way. U.S. law gives his EPA just enough of a fig leaf to try to push forward with carbon regulation despite congressional opposition, though even then by most accounts he is pushing existing laws to their limits or even beyond. Ms. Gillard has to go to her parliament for an up or down vote on carbon taxation. That might be one reason why her anti-carbon moves are generating more pronounced opposition now—the Australian public is more aware of what their leaders are getting up to than are their American peers.
Carbon-tax supporters in Canberra will try to make their proposal more palatable with additions like a rebate on the electricity bills the tax would push higher or the like. But this will only further complicate the politics by giving tax opponents more fodder. For instance, they can skewer the rebate as an inefficient and theoretically inconsistent way to hand carbon consumers’ money back to them. And while the tax may yet pass, that could prove a Pyrrhic victory for Ms. Gillard and her coalition partners come the next election.
Still, the news from Australia suggests Mr. Obama is taking a big gamble if he figures the public will never catch on. Ms. Gillard’s recent experience shows what happens when voters do, and the result is a disaster-in-the-making for any leader facing a re-election battle.