ACTU president Sharan Burrow says Australia faces a "republican moment" on climate policy: if it is knocked back, it will disappear from the agenda for years.
Despite this, and like virtually everyone interested in climate policy, unions want changes to the Government's emissions trading proposal.
It is the one theme among diverse witnesses to a Senate inquiry convened by the Coalition and the Greens: the Government's plan is flawed.
Ms Burrow said the Government should also introduce separate policies to drive emissions cuts through energy efficiency, agriculture and forestry, and voluntary action at household level. She said this would allow deeper cuts than the Government's proposed 5 per cent to 15 per cent cut below 2000 emissions by 2020.
But Ms Burrow said it would be at least six years before another scheme was brought before Parliament if the current plan was rejected outright. "Putting it on hold would be like a republican moment, frankly — if we lose it we won't get it back for some time, with far greater consequences," she told a hearing in Melbourne yesterday.
"We all want amendments, but (if) you go down the route of not putting this legislation in … we set Australia up as the losers in the global economy."
Ms Burrow cited a CSIRO report that found the scheme could create more than 3 million green jobs by 2015.
But the steel industry warned it would inevitably lead to job losses. OneSteel chief executive Geoff Plummer said hundreds would go from his business.
BlueScope chief executive Paul O'Malley has already forecast a loss over the next six months. He said an extra cost should not be imposed unless it would also hit overseas competitors.
While the emissions trading proposal offered it 90 per cent free carbon permits as a trade-exposed industry, Mr O'Malley said this would mean only 58 per cent to 74 per cent, as much of the business was ineligible. "We are at the 11th hour and the material cost on our business is still not being acknowledged," he said.
The Senate inquiry is the second into climate policy. The first only underlined the depth of division between the parties, with the Coalition and crossbench senators strengthening their attacks on the proposal.
World Vision chief executive Tim Costello said the big losers under the Government's scheme would be the world's poor. "The failure of our generation to do all we can to avoid dangerous climate change will be one of the most egregious violations of child rights in human history," he said.