CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's minority government, struggling to push through a tax on carbon emissions, has angered key independents involved in drafting the tax by announcing an advertising campaign to promote the policy, exposing new tensions among lawmakers in the final weeks of negotiations.
The carbon tax has become a make-or break issue for Prime minister Julia Gillard, who is struggling in opinion polls as she approaches the first anniversary of her party-room coup against former prime minister Kevin Rudd.
The government, Greens and independents are locked in final talks on the carbon tax and hope to strike a deal by early July on the price, which industries it will cover, and levels of compensation for industry and households.
But key independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor said a government decision to spend A$12 million ($12.7 million) to advertise the tax was "unhelpful," particularly with the carbon negotiations in the balance over the coming two to three weeks.
"This is a dumb call at the wrong time," Oakeshott told reporters. "This is essentially not helpful at a really critical and sensitive moment in trying to pull this deal together."
The government wants to impose a carbon tax on 1,000 of the country's biggest polluters from July next year and move to an emissions trading scheme three to five years later, in order to price carbon and help curb emissions, blamed for global warming.
Climate policy has played a key role in former prime minister John Howard's election loss in 2007, and then in the Labor Party's dumping of Rudd in favor of Gillard, and polls now show 60 percent of Australian voters oppose the plan.
But the government hopes it can win back public support once it announces details of the tax and compensation for low and middle income householders for the resulting higher food and electricity prices.
Climate Change Minister Greg Combet on Thursday said the government had approved an initial A$12 million for an advertising and marketing campaign to promote the tax, once details have been decided.
"Climate change is a significant economic and environmental challenge that affects all Australians," Combet said, adding the campaign would start once the full policy was decided.
Independent Tony Windsor, who has yet to offer full support for a carbon tax, criticized the decision to spend taxpayer's money on the advertising campaign, but said he did not feel it would not derail negotiations with the government.
"The easiest thing for us would have been to just walk away from this and let the government put up a piece of legislation and then make a decision on the piece of legislation. This is a bigger issue than that.
"But it doesn't deserve to be trivialized by announcing some sort of promotion campaign, when we are probably weeks from determining what the outcome is, if any."($1 = 0.946 Australian Dollars)
(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Ed Davies)