Australia passes divisive carbon tax
Sydney - Australia's lower house on Wednesday passed a contentious new tax on carbon pollution to combat climate change which has angered many voters and threatens Prime Minister Julia Gillard's hold on power.
After years of heated debate, the government won the count on what it said was the most important environmental and economic reform in a generation.
"Today is a significant day for Australians and the Australians of the future who want to see a better environment," Gillard said ahead of the parliamentary vote which must now win approval in the upper house Senate.
The deeply divisive levy will mean the nation's biggest producers of carbon emissions will be forced to "pay to pollute" from July 01 2012 - initially at a fixed price before moving to a market-based trading scheme.
Government ministers embraced and clapped after the vote, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard exchanging kisses with the man she ousted to become leader, Kevin Rudd, in the celebrations.
The tax bills are expected to pass in the Senate next month with the support of the Greens.
Australia, one of the world's worst per capita polluters and a major exporter of coal, has long grappled with how to combat climate change but previous bills to introduce emissions trading schemes have been defeated.
While Gillard managed to get her Clean Energy Bill 2011 through parliament 74 votes to 72, it is bitterly opposed by the conservative opposition which argues it will be ineffective, cut jobs and increase the cost of living.
The row over climate change has brought down former prime minister Rudd and two leaders of the opposition in the last two years and made Gillard extremely unpopular with voters.
Thousands have protested at rallies nationwide against the levy, accusing Gillard of lying when she said ahead of her narrow August 2010 election win that there would be no carbon tax under a government she led.
The parliamentary win comes as speculation that Rudd - who is far more popular with the electorate than Gillard, whose approval rating has hit record lows in recent months - will mount a challenge to her leadership.
And it follows the government's embarrassing failure to introduce its plan to send boatpeople to Malaysia, after the deal was rule invalid by the High Court.
The prime minister, who leads a minority government with the Greens and three independent MPs, defended the government's campaign in favour of its carbon tax, which opinion polls show is opposed by a majority of voters.
"When there is a significant change like this one, we have to keep explaining it," she said.
But opposition leader Tony Abbott pledged to repeal the tax if elected to government at the next national polls - not expected until late 2013.
"I am giving you the most definite commitment any politician can give that this tax will go," he told state broadcaster ABC.
"This is a pledge in blood. This tax will go."
Environmental groups welcomed approval of the tax, which they hope will help secure the future of national treasures such as the Great Barrier Reef and encourage greater global action on climate change.
"Today our MPs have voted 'yes' to creating a stronger economy, 'yes' to new jobs in clean industries and 'yes' to giving our wildlife a fighting chance," WWF-Australia chief executive Dermot O'Gorman said.
"The greening of Australia is well under way," added Greens leader Bob Brown.