27 February, 2010

The time has come to say fair’s fair

I never really liked Midnight Oil when I was at school.  I grudgingly enjoyed a few of their songs but I really wanted to hate them.  This is because I was at high school when they were at the height of their popularity and where I went to school, wearing a Midnight Oil t-shirt was seen as a good enough substitute for having a social conscience.  That was despite the fact that half the people wearing them and chanting OIYOOOS!  were redneck cavemen.  The older me would smile quietly at the irony but back then, it just pissed me off. 

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 tough
We've got the best of both worlds here
Things are rough
Why 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.

And Midnight Oil?  Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie wrote most of the songs.


  1. Great article. I thinking jumping on the 'Garrett sell-out' bandwagon is all too easy. The truth is, his compromise on pulp mills, dredging and uranium expansion is inevitable as a minister. He cannot simply say no to a uranium mine when he is given credible documentation that suggests the impact to the environment is minimal. As an activist, he could stand in front of the bull dozer and bring attention to the issue but either way, the mine would still be built.

    It isn't glamorous, it certainly won't leave his legacy unharmed and he won't have many friends at the end of it all. The question is, was it worth it?

    No. Perhaps on a personal not Peter can be proud of his political standing, but the truth is, he hasn't been a great minister. He has sacrificed so much for so little. Whilst being a rock star might not hold as much practical influence on policy, it certainly brings issues to the public consciousness, and as a result, piticians can grab bits that try can utilise like fish nipping at the bait.

    Activists play an important role in any democracy. Yes it's often extremism, but it's balanced out by the conservatives and the centre-lefts. Garrett was a master at this. He campaigned for personal issues and made them public issues.

    I don't think Peter is a sell-out. His career is a multi faceted one and I have no doubt he earnestly believes he can make even small differences from the inside. Personly though, I don't think losing his legacy and legion of fans was worth it in the end.

  2. It's certainly a shame that a once-respected musician and political activist has become a laughing stock, but I guess he made the burning bed he's now lying in.

  3. Well said. I can't wait to see how it all played out when he releases his bio. Fascinating study in rock star grandstanding meets political grind.

  4. Thank you for the well-put comment Anon. I fully agree. I still respect him for having a go, and I'm sure he was savvy enough to know his right-on reputation would take a hammering for it even if things had gone well.

    I wonder if the lesson here is that some people are more effective as advocate, activists, and even agitators. Perhaps Garrett would have been better off taking the Bono approach of becoming a kind of lobbyist for his issues.

    Kelly and Von, wow, that's harsh! But I can see where you're coming from. Things are never as simple as we'd like them to be - Garrett found out the hard way.

  5. I'm kind of hoping that this will stir Greg to move into other areas of Peter's interests - maybe pick up and guitar start jumping around the stage.. that's right, I'm looking for a bit of Combet Rock. :)

    But seriously, I've never understood the idea of "Peter Garrett, Politician". As Bill says, the majority of people I remember being heavily into Midnight Oil were right-wing dicks - more interested in the medium of grunty Australian rock than the message. As the lead of MO and through his work with Greenpeace, ACF, etc he's undoubtedly done good work and raised awareness of a number of issues, but Peter Garret always struck me as a careerist - the kind of politician we don't necessarily want but invariably get.

    Be interesting to see how this plays out over the longer term. Maybe Mark Latham will turn up to perform with Greg, with a big "Sorry" printed across his black T-shirt.

  6. I'm glad you mentioned Mark Latham - I'd meant to mention him in both previous comments. These days, pretty much all Labor people will grab any chance to shitcan "The Latham Experiment" (probably because he told a few home truths about them) yet they continue to protect the Garrett Experiment. And I think it was a worthy experiment, but the results are in and they're not good.

    I wonder whether the Oils deliberately pitched their music at those who didn't naturally follow their politics.
    Were they actively trying to make rednecks pogo to songs of conservation and reconciliation?
    Did they assume that all Oils fans were their people politically as well as musically?
    Or did they care either way?

  7. It's far easier to write a song about saving the world than it is to get all the right people together to agree to actually save the world. Maybe that's why entertainers-turned-politicians who join the conservative team are more successful. They already know how to perform for money. I can't think of any on the left right now who did a good job.

  8. Very interesting point. Which other ones are you thinking of? Just curious because the only other current left-leaning entertainers turned politicians I can think of are Al Franken, who hasn't really had time to prove himself one way or another, and Glenda Jackson, who was a junior minister for a few years but remains a strong MP as far as I know.