Defending Peter Garrett

(photo: Revenge Radio) The band Midnight Oil play wonderful, pumping, roadtrip music. Though they were one of the few Aussie outfits I was aware of growing up in the Northern Hemisphere, I never really got into them until a “best of” compilation was on high rotation when driving up the Newell Highway from Melbourne to Brisbane for Christmas in 1990. It was hardly seasonal but it was good singalong stuff and the energy in Peter Garrett’s music helped make the three day trip go a lot faster.

Given his charisma and the polemics of his lyrics, it was no surprise to see him eventually enter politics. What was surprising was pickingLabor ahead of the Greens. The mistake I made about Garrett was to only look at his passion and forget about his power.

Labor was in awe of Garrett. On the eve of Australia Day 2004, then leader Mark Latham met him for lunch at Garrett’s home in Mittagong, NSW. Latham was entranced by his host. “Simply outstanding, charismatic, humane, full of ideas [and] dedicated to his gorgeous family,” gushed Latham in his Diaries. “I felt like giving him my seat”. Latham wasn’t quite that generous (he eventually gave that to Chris Hayes) but he did parachute Garrett  into parliament for the safe inner Sydney east seat of Kingsford-Smith when Laurie Brereton resigned. Garrett attracted huge media interest in a losing election for Labor, increasing the margin for Kingsford-Smith from two to 10 percent.

Latham knew Garrett would be electoral gold for Labor. The kudos from his musical career and work with the Australian Conservation Foundation were huge and he became a fundamental plank of Labor’s strategy to win back power. Whenever the Howard Government or their media messengers complained Labor was the plaything of trade unionists, Labor leaders could wheel out a bona fide rock star. Rudd was particularly fond of this card. He wanted Garrett to play a leading role in re-positioning Labor as a party that cares about the environment.

The Liberals immediately saw Garrett as a dangerous opponent and moved to destabilise him. They noted he wasn’t registered to vote in Australian elections for a decade. Garrett’s response wasn’t entirely convincing. He said he had a silent enrolment, needing to keep his home address private for security reasons, and insisted he voted in “most elections.”

More damaging was the changing-it-all-in-power “joke” with Steve Price at Melbourne airport weeks before the 2007 election. Many on the left worried this was an appalling blunder despite Price’s shabby role in the affair. Many worried about the impact on its rebranding too. But it all washed over and did not undermine Rudd’s brutal blitzkrieg on the prime ministership – nor Garrett’s own electoral popularity. Garrett bagged a further swing of 4.6 percent in 2007.

Kevin Rudd promised Garrett the environment ministry. But with the Price mistake reminding everyone he was a political greenhorn, and the environment threatening to become the second most important minister after the Treasury; Rudd clipped Garrett’s wings and gave the crucial portfolios of climate change and water to the wonkish Senator Penny Wong. Wayne Swan would be the spokesman on these affairs in the lower house.

This was played out as a defeat for Garrett. The right crowed Garrett was punished for stupidity while the left felt Garrett was set up to fail by his boss. Garrett was rolled on uranium policy and would now had to carry it out. Yet as environment, heritage and the arts minister Garrett wields considerable cultural power. He challenges the rules to the greenest of his compromise abilities and hasn’t had an appellate challenge to his decisions yet. He knows the law must change for decisions to change. Yet very few other ministers are as accused of hypocrisy as often as he is.

(photo by Liam) The French, on the other hand, have no doubt where he stands in the pantheon. Last month, French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand named Garrett Officier in the French Order of Arts and Letters. Mitterrand praised Garrett as an internationally acclaimed rock singer and also because he was “un ardent défenseur de l’environnement et à une figure éminente de l’écologie.”

Ardent local defenders of this figure éminente have begun to crop up in the last few days. Crikey’s Bernard Keane started the fightback on Thursday. “Leave Peter alone”, he demanded. Garrett like Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, Keane reminded us, doesn’t have to be in politics, or work at all. All could retire now and count their money. “[But a]ll are in politics because they want to achieve genuine change,” he said.

That theme was picked up in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald. Paul Daley says Garrett is “singularly miscast as the naive blunderer in the big, bad world of public policy”. Garrett joined the Labor Party because he knew that is where he could achieve the most change. Despite the “slaps in the face” he has received, Garrett “does not greet the sunrise with existential angst.” Daley says Garrett has a longer term view.

Peter van Onselen also waded in for Garrett. He says the former singer has become an accomplished pragmatist who isn’t captured by lobby groups, despite a strong environment conscience. “What you have to hope, however,” he said. “is that Garrett has a line in the sand that he won’t cross, a policy decision he would refuse to be part of in government.” Garrett, as ever, is judged by higher standards.


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