Prime Minister Rudd today took leadership.

He grabbed an issue by the horns, took on powerful and hugely cashed-up lobby groups and a non-cooperative opposition, and announced a policy which, though popular with some, will seriously piss off a not insignificant number of Labor voters.

In announcing the plain packaging and price hike for cigarettes, Mr Rudd said:

“We the Government will not be intimidated by any big tobacco company trying to get in the road of doing the right thing for the health of working families and the right thing also for long-term funding of our health and hospital system.”

Oh how I wish we could hear those words ever so slightly tweaked:

“We the Government will not be intimidated by any big coal company trying to get in the road of doing the right thing for the climate, for the health of working families and the right thing also for long-term funding of our critical sustainable energy and transport systems.”

Mr Rudd also made the clear point that:

“The Government will not be paying any compensation to any tobacco company anywhere.”

Instead we have craven policy developed which bends over backwards for the polluters, putting in place incentives to continue with our current polluting economy for years to come and holding back the transformation away from coal. And then, when it becomes clear that a ‘my way or the highway’ approach won’t work, the attempt to get a carbon price in the market is dumped for three years.

What is going on here?

People have long drawn parallels – quite explicit links, in fact – between the PR campaigns by tobacco lobbyists and those by coal lobbyists. Check out George Monbiot’s work on this for eye-opening revelations, if you don’t already know them.

But what has clearly happened now is that the coal sector has eclipsed the tobacco companies in lobbying power.

There are a few reasons for this, as far as I see it.

Where tobacco and coal are both ingrained in the American psyche, in its mythology, if you will, only coal holds that place in Australia. Although you could argue that even for coal the mythology is far less powerful here in Australia, tobacco certainly has no hold here. Cigarettes are popular, but the industry is all overseas. Australians still see BHP as the big Australian, even though most of the miners are now wholly or largely overseas owned.

There is also the question of electoral mathematics, as the Labor party sees it. Sure, there are plenty more smokers in Australia than coal miners or aluminium smelters. At least an order of magnitude more, I would have thought. But I would hazard a guess that they are spread reasonably evenly across seats – perhaps with a slight slant towards outer metro suburbs, but perhaps not. I hope Possum looks at that soon! Coal miners are in very specific seats, most of them Labor held, and wide open to a closely targeted campaign which scares the pants off Labor.

But I suspect the largest issue is that the campaign against big tobacco has been going longer and, in a very real way, they companies have lost their social licence here in Australia. Who in the mainstream media is going to run their lines in the way that the media have happily run the scare-mongering and rent-seeking from the coal lobby and other polluters?

This is one of the key challenges of the environment movement, in my opinion. Alongside running a positive, inspiring campaign that makes people want to sign up for the zero emissions transition, we need to remove the social licence of polluters so they can never again get away with the campaign they have run so successfully in recent years.

We must aim for the second, imagined statement to become a reality in the next term of government.

Let’s go!