It wasn’t until later that I developed a liking and admiration for what they did. Midnight Oil were a political band who did their homework. The Diesel and Dust album came out of tours of remote communities with Warumpi Band and Gondwanaland. Peter Garrett didn’t just express support for the Australian Conservation Foundation, he served two terms as its president. He also ran for the Senate in 1984 as leader of the Nuclear Disarmament Party.
In 2004, Garrett joined the Labor Party and successfully ran for the safe Labor seat of Kingsford-Smith in Sydney. He acknowledged at the time that joining a mainstream party would necessitate modifying his views on certain issues. Some sniffed a sell-out, but I quietly respected him for it. No-one achieves anything in politics if they take an all-or-nothing attitude and precious few of those who criticise the government have the guts to have a go themselves, so I didn’t fault him for his pragmatic approach. He was a strong spokesman on environmental issues in opposition. He had effectively been a spokesman in opposition to various governments for the last twenty years, but now there were less dance moves.
He got off to a shaky start in government when Labor won in 2007. During the campaign, Sydney talk radio host Steve Price reported that Garrett had told him, “We’ll just change all the policies once we get in.” Garrett’s political naivety was in expecting someone like Steve Price to appreciate the joke and not use it against him. Some suggested that this gaffe was the reason that cabinet responsibility for climate change was given to Penny Wong, despite Garrett being appointed Minister for the Environment and the Arts. But now it looks like they knew he wasn’t quite up to the job.
Garrett’s performance as a cabinet minister has satisfied no-one, least of all some of his biggest fans, after he approved the dredging of Port Phillip Bay, the Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania and a new uranium mine. Even then, I was loath to actually call him a sell-out. I chose to see it as proof that he was taking a pragmatic approach in the wider national interest rather than being motivated by pure ideology. Be that as it may, there’s no escaping the fact that the Minister for the Environment has done things that would have disgusted the singer from Midnight Oil. His handling of the Arts portfolio hasn’t been much better, with his most notable action being to withdraw funding from Australian National Academy of Music. You wouldn’t read about it!
So far, the government has shielded Garrett somewhat, and I can sort of see why, since he came into the role without having been a political operative since university, as so many others have been. But after five years as an MP and two as a minister, it’s time he stood or fell on his own merits.
It was looking like he was about to do the latter early this week when Kevin Rudd did not support his minister over the insulation debacle. When the PM doesn’t speak up in support of a minister, it’s usually an indication that the minister is dead in the water. But then yesterday, Rudd took the extraordinary step of taking the heat for his minister – a reversal of centuries of convention. Rudd certainly has the popularity to pull off such a mea culpa without too much damage, but it would have been utterly unnecessary if Garrett had simply offered his resignation last week. Then Rudd could have “reluctantly” accepted it and Tony Abbott would have to find something new to yap about. Bernard Keane from Crikey made the point that no minister can be responsible for every little knock-on effect of their decisions, and that if Peter Garrett is responsible for the four deaths of insulation installers, that would make Tony Abbott responsible for every death resulting from a hospital accident during the time he was health minister. That’s a cute debating point but just because Garrett isn’t personally responsible for any of the deaths doesn’t stop him taking what responsibility he has. He should resign simply because it’s the decent thing to do.
Things got even weirder today, when Garrett was demoted. Energy Efficiency will be taken over by Penny Wong, while cleaning up the insulation mess will be the responsibility of Greg Combet. Yet Garrett remains Minister for the Environment and a member of Cabinet. It just doesn’t make sense.
You say times are toughWhy keep him there? It’s not to get the green vote – they hate him for the reasons mentioned above. Garrett is nothing but a liability now. His own positive spin on the demotion is that he welcomes the opportunity to focus on key issues and passions. I believe him. I think that was all he was ever there for in the first place. It was running a government department that got the better of him. Like a football player who turns his hand to coaching and suddenly realises it’s a different skill that he doesn’t have, Garrett may be a great spokesman on issues, but he is not a minister. While I still respect him for having a go, I now have to wonder if some people do their best work from the outside, being a critic and not a participant. Some people work best in opposition. The best thing Labor can do with him now, is bust him down to some kind of parliamentary secretary and let him try and get back some credibility as Labor’s chief greenie wrangler.
We've got the best of both worlds here
Things are rough
And Midnight Oil? Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie wrote most of the songs.