CANBERRA - Prime Minister Julia Gillard faces a crucial tipping point in her political future as she prepares to announce details of a carbon tax already dragging her leadership and the Labor Government towards apparent doom.
A year after ousting Kevin Rudd in a coup that still angers voters, and 10 months since she clung to power with the limited support of Greens and independent MPs, Gillard's popularity continues to plummet.
In polls published yesterday she slipped for the first time behind Opposition Leader Tony Abbott as preferred Prime Minister, her satisfaction rating dived to depths not plumbed for almost two decades, and Labor's primary vote plunged to a record low.
Further indignities followed: while the Government would be crushed by the Coalition if an election was held now, an Essential Media poll said if Rudd was restored as leader Labor could defeat Abbott. Gillard has continued to suffer from speculation that Rudd is planning a comeback - denied by the former Prime Minister - and has failed to pull the Government out of a deep and dangerous trough.
Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard's standing fell to similar depths in the run-up to the snap election in 1998, when his plans for a GST, deep spending cuts and industrial policies almost cost him a second term.
But unlike Gillard, Howard had already won a landslide over Labor's Paul Keating, the Labor Opposition was rudderless, and within a year of his re-election had clawed back to a popularity that ultimately saw him become the nation's second-longest serving Prime Minister.
Despite a welcome respite early this year, Gillard has battled against lingering, widespread bitterness at the knifing of Rudd, the draining battle over mining taxes, rising costs of living, the debacle over asylum seekers - and, more recently, live cattle exports - and climate change policies.
Focus on her leadership and a whack in the polls was inevitable with last week's anniversary of Rudd's departure, both for the memories it invoked and the latest speculation over the intentions of her foreign minister.
But the planned carbon tax is the most pressing of the nooses around the Prime Minister's neck: she promised before the election she would not introduce such a tax, broke that pledge when she was returned to office, and has swung since from the uncertainties and compromises that followed.
Abbott has had a field day, sidestepping detail and hammering Gillard with his simple "one more great big tax" mantra.
Yesterday he told a mining conference that a A$25 ($30.80) a tonne tax on carbon - as recommended by the Government's chief climate change adviser, Professor Ross Garnaut - would shut down 16 coal mines and put 23,000 people out of work.
The message has been getting through: in the most recent of a series of similar findings, a Lowy Institute poll on Monday said almost 40 per cent of voters rejected a carbon tax.
Gillard's tactics are to hang tough, get the tax through Parliament, then use the remaining two years of her term to move on and rebuild support.
On ABC TV yesterday she refused to comment on Rudd's ascendancy in the Essential poll - saying her "eyes are firmly trained on the future" - and said that while times were tough Australia would eventually accept the tax.
"Ultimately I believe Australians will see the need to price carbon," she said.
Treasurer Wayne Swan said the Government had to stay on course through "an ocean of negativity" and big reforms were always tough.
"They're always hard fought and you always lose some paint, but the Prime Minister's got more leadership in her little finger than Tony Abbott has in his entire body," he said.
Yesterday's Newspoll in the Australian showed just how much paint Gillard has lost.
Her satisfaction rating has fallen to 28 per cent - down 22 per cent since the carbon tax was announced, and her lowest since becoming Prime Minister. Dissatisfaction has soared to 62 per cent.
Abbott now leads Gillard as preferred Prime Minister by 41 per cent to 39 per cent, Labor's primary vote has plunged to a record low of 30 per cent, and the Coalition has opened a crushing two-party preferred lead of 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
Newspoll and Nielsen polls have also shown Gillard trailing Rudd, whose stature was pumped by the latest weekly Essential poll.
This said if Rudd was returned as Prime Minister the Government's primary vote would leap 13 points to 45 per cent, handing Labor an election-winning two-party preferred lead of 53 per cent to 47 per cent.