CANBERRA (Reuters) - Climate change and cleaning up Australia's coal-reliant economy need to be at the heart economic reform, the powerful Greens said on Tuesday, as opinion polls show the government losing the battle to price carbon pollution.
The Greens, whose support is vital for the government and will hold the balance of power in the Senate from July, say Australia faces a bleak future from greater weather extremes such as floods, drought and bushfires.
Putting a price on carbon emissions from big polluters such as power generators and miners, was a key starting point in the fight, Greens climate spokeswoman Senator Christine Milne said in an interview on Tuesday.
"The most important consideration for the Greens is whatever we start with, we can't be in a position where that can't be made more stringent over time out to 2050," Milne told Reuters.
"We have to make sure that it doesn't preclude stronger action being taken as we head into the next decade," she said.
Milne is a member of the new multi-party climate committee, proposed by the Greens and set up by the government to come up with a new climate policy which will lead to a carbon emissions trading scheme from around 2015.
The latest polls, however, showed the government was struggling to sell its carbon plan to voters, Milne said, adding more needed to be done to promote the environmental benefits of climate policy.
A respected Newspoll published on Tuesday showed support for Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Labor Party at a record low that would see her soundly defeated if an election were held now.
The opposition has seized on fears of higher power and fuel costs after the government announced last month the outlines of a scheme that starts with a fixed price on emissions from 2012, before switching to emissions trading three to five years later.
The $1.3 trillion economy has long been fuelled by polluting and cheap fossil fuels such as coal and oil, making Australia the highest per-capita carbon polluter in the developed world.
Labor's former prime minister Kevin Rudd had proposed a sweeping carbon trade scheme for Australia's biggest polluters. That plan was shelved in 2010 after it twice failed to pass through parliament, and Labor later dumped Rudd in favour of current prime minister Julia Gillard.
Milne said the multi-party committee had not yet discussed what price to put on carbon pollution from July 2012, although the Greens would push for a high price. Analysts have suggested a starting price as low as $15, or up to around $30 a tonne.
"The Greens would like to see a price that really drives the transformation in Australia, to reform the economy away from coal," Milne said.
"We recognise that we are not going to get a high carbon price in the first instance."
She said the Greens supported compensation for export-exposed industries, but only to protect them to the extent of their trade exposures.
Steelmaker BlueScope Steel BLS.AX, oil and gas producer Woodside Petroleum (WPL.AX) and LNG producers have all stepped up the pressure on the government to protect their industries from the impact of a carbon price.
But Milne described their calls for full compensation as "unhelpful".
She said the good news was that public opinion was pretty evenly divided on a price on carbon and support for the Greens was up, which suggest that people want action on climate change but they are not convinced yet where the government is going.
She said a crucial part of the debate was to make a stronger link between climate change and the increasing number of deadly billion-dollar disasters that have hit the country over the past three years, including recent floods and Cyclone Yasi in February.
"There's a strange kind of political correctness which has taken over the coverage of extreme weather in Australia whereby it is deemed inappropriate to comment and link extreme weather events to climate change as being somehow disrespectful to the suffering people are experience," she said.
"And therefore people tend to disassociate the two."
(Additional reporting by James Grubel;Editing by Ed Davies)