The Garrett enigma

It’s happened before, but criticism of Peter Garrett, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts has been re-kindled following his approval of mining at the Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia.  In accepting the conclusions of two independent reviews of the likely environmental impact of the proposed mine that it posed no credible risk to the environment. Garrett, having satisfied himself that specified environmental standards would be met, was bound to give his approval.  He was never in a position to allow any personal feelings he might have had about uranium mining to influence his decision. [more]

It is common knowledge that Garrett was former chair of the Australian Conservation Foundation and one-time Nuclear Disarmament Party Senate candidate, that as lead singer in Midnight Oil he often harangued those in uranium mining with a tirade of condemnation, and that at the 2007 Labor Party national conference he spoke vehemently against uranium mining.  But he accepted rejection by the conference of his position, which he still holds, and stated that as a Minister he would be bound by Cabinet decisions, and in any case was a ‘team player’.

Of the ten articles I have seen on this subject, only one used the language used by the Coalition, who agreed with his decision but called him a hypocrite and a phoney, and the Greens who didn’t agree but still called him a hypocrite.  In a typically acerbic piece Garrett’s mastered the language of politics in The Daily Telegraph, Piers Akerman calls him ‘a total sell-out’ and ‘nothing but an unprincipled charlatan.’  One can always rely on Akerman for barbed comments about anything connected with the Rudd Government.  On the ABC’s Insiders last Sunday Fran Kelly insisted that Garrett’s appointment as Environment Minister was a disaster and that he should be replaced as soon as possible.

So what did the columnists say?  Laurie Oakes led off with No beds burning for Garrett in The Daily Telegraph by asking if Garrett might do a ‘Mal Meninga’ one day and toss it all in.  He opined that “If the punters accept the characterisation of Garrett as an insincere sell-out, his credibility is shredded.  His ability to push the Government's message and promote its policies is seriously undermined and his value to the Labor Party is greatly reduced.  But those who think that Garrett will eventually crack, rediscover his principles and follow Meninga off the political field misjudge him badly.”  Oakes concluded: “Inevitably, there is speculation about whether it might be better for Garrett and the Government if he moved to another portfolio. But it is not something he himself wants. Garrett has become a tough, pragmatic politician, earning him admiration among his colleagues.”

In The Age, in a piece On the borderline Shaun Carney says "Garrett's in a box marked 'greenie-leftie rock star' and he's expected to stay in it.”  Later he says “The public and media reaction this week should provide food for thought for Kevin Rudd. Garrett's responsibility was to act on advice about the environmental impact of the Four Mile mine, not to make a decision on the merits of uranium mining. That had already been taken by the Rann Government, which wants more mines.  And yet, if you cared to ask just about anybody, they'd tell you that Garrett was singularly responsible for a new uranium mine and that he's now pro-uranium. That's the quick, if inaccurate, take on the Four Mile decision.”  Carney concludes “Rudd should have given him a different portfolio. Having him in environment confuses his past as an activist with his current status and his wider obligations as a cabinet minister.”

In the SMH, Kerry-Anne Walsh in a piece A Labor loner who has given it all away says "But surely he doesn't have to so completely neuter his own convictions and shred his past. Didn't he get into Parliament to make a real difference, to open party politics up to his personal politics?"  And later "Another mystery is why Rudd would put the Labor star into such a potentially destructive portfolio."

Also in the SMH in a piece Garrett sees past Midnight hour, Paul Daley writes "It's time to judge the politician, not the former rock star.", and later "But his supporters ...have always maintained he remains comfortable with his decision to enter politics. And no, they say, he does not greet the sunrise with existential angst. Know what? I now believe them.  For Garrett is singularly miscast as the naive blunderer in the big, bad world of public policy....Garrett joined Labor fully aware he'd have to toe the line on party policy that clashed with his personal views."

Then Robyn Riley in the Herald Sun in a piece The time has come: lay off Environment Minister Peter Garrett says “People can change their views and most do, especially in the pragmatic world of government. That's just a fact of life, so let's stop playing this silly game of political point-scoring.  The bottom line is that it would have been a much bigger story if Garrett had gone against party convention and knocked back the uranium deal for the Four Mile Mine in South Australia, ignoring an election commitment in the process.  Of course, then he would have been criticised by the same people for putting his beliefs ahead of employment opportunities and his party's election promises. Let's move on."

Annabelle Crabb, writing in the SMH in The brutal, thriving industry that is the modern Garrett hunt begins by saying "Was ever a politician easier to skewer?  She goes on to say "We have politicians because we need people, for practical reasons, who will take decisions on our collective behalf.  We reserve the right to shellack them personally, of course, and to rubbish them for making the compromises that our very democracy forces upon them.  We want other people to make the compromises - that's the point.  And Garrett has made them, without a word of protest.  On one construction, it's a personal hypocrisy. On another, it's the most earnest surrender of ego to the democratic process that this Government has seen.  Has it been worth it?  Only Garrett can know the answer to that question."

Later she says “His announcement this week that he had approved Australia's fourth uranium mine is probably the most devastating punch that Pete Garrett, Environment Minister, has yet landed on Pete Garrett, rockstar activist.  The mine would have gone ahead whomever was environment minister — Labor's three-mine policy was revoked in 2007 by the party's national conference, over the vocal objections of Garrett, then shadow minister for the environment.  Garrett could have resigned, when the will of Cabinet inevitably endorsed the conference's decision.  People have resigned for much, much less. And resignation would have been the signal that Garrett has finally had enough; that he couldn't bear any further insult to Rockstar Pete.  But he didn't resign, which tells us that the Environment Minister still thinks he is more use in there beavering away at the conditions on approval for a fourth uranium mine than he is protesting outside the proposed site, whatever the unattractive personal ramifications for his own already battered image.  It's not very glamorous, but it is a rather spectacular variation on conviction politics.”

An article by Peter van Onselen in The Australian, The good oil: Peter Garrett knows his job concluded "Garrett has clearly decided that despite the public ridicule and the attacks he incurs from former friends and colleagues in the environmental movement, he can do more good on the inside of government as a cabinet minister, occasionally approving policies he doesn't particularly agree with, rather than spitting the dummy and walking away from the decision-making process altogether.  It is an admirable and pragmatic approach to public policy.  What you have to hope, however, 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....If Garrett doesn't have a line in the sand, he is a sell-out, make no mistake. But if he does, and so long as he hasn't crossed it, he has become a pragmatic politician holding on to a few convictions along the way. Howard would be proud."

Yesterday in her blog in The Australian, Be like Garrett, ditch your idealsJanet Albrechtsen begins "Now that the dust has settled, it’s worth looking back at Peter Garrett’s epiphany on the way to the Four Mile uranium mine in far northern South Australia. There are indeed many lessons to be learned. But not the ones most commonly asserted by those quick to criticise the former Midnight Oil frontman. Garrett’s experience in approving the first new uranium project in his time as Environment Minister is an important lesson about idealism."  She goes on to say "Not a lesson about a once noble young man whose idealism has been corrupted by power. It is about the follies of idealism....Critics from Right and Left were fast and furious in denouncing Garrett. Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull said he was a “big phony” for approving a mine after passionately arguing against uranium mining at the 2007 ALP national conference. The Coalition’s environment spokesman Greg Hunt said Garrett was a hypocrite. Environmental activists were equally appalled by Garrett’s about-face on uranium mining. Greens leader Bob Brown said Garrett had clearly lost his way and had 'sacrificed himself to Labor politics'.  Only Brown is right. And only up to a point. Far from losing his way, Garrett has deliberately sacrificed his early idealism to deal with the real world. He knew he would have to do so when he joined the Labor Party and entered parliament.” 

She concludes "Garrett may well be a political liability for the Rudd government and he may grow tired of the humiliations. But, inadvertently, Garrett has already performed a great service for Australian public life. By his actions, he has issued a resounding warning to Midnight Oil fans and like-minded romanticists to abandon their childlike pieties and touching simplicities in favour of recognising that the world is a complex place where good policy depends on ministers having less passion and more rationality."

What do we make of all this?  The world is full of bell-shaped curves.  Those who live as outliers, several standard deviations from the mean, will have the most radical views about Garrett – a hypocrite, a phoney, a ‘sell-out’ and ‘nothing but an unprincipled charlatan’, or simply one that has abandoned his romantic, impractical and unrealistic idealism, albeit laudably – via an epiphany.  But was it an epiphany where idealism was abandoned?  Or was the epiphany simply accepting that in the real world of politics there is conflict and that observance by ministers of Cabinet decisions must override personal convictions? 

Some are adamant, even strident, that he has been placed in the wrong portfolio and must be moved, some say urgently.

Those who live around the middle of the bell-shaped curve conclude that he is admirably placing his ministerial responsibilities and the imperative to be true to Cabinet decisions ahead of any personal beliefs he has about the issues that come to him for decision.  Some see that having someone of such strong convictions about these issues is the very one who is most suited for taking the decisions his portfolio demands.

There seems to be broad acknowledgement that Garrett knows exactly what he is doing, what conflicts he has to manage, what criticism he is bound to attract from the outliers, and what ignominy will descend upon him no matter which way his decisions go.  Yet he seems to have the courage to press on regardless, and wear the downside.  A ‘Mal Meninga’ is highly improbable.  An undercurrent of admiration for him pervades several of the pieces written on this subject.

And Kevin Rudd seems to know exactly what he’s doing in retaining Garrett where he is.  Having someone whom he knows will put every such proposal under a high-powered microscope is just what Rudd wants and needs.

The Garrett enigma seems more apparent than real.

What do you think?

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23/07/2009People should remember Garrett's time as Chairman(?) of the ACF. He was entirely prepared to push unpopular views- that is, his own (religious) convictions- against those of the mass of members. Caused some angst and a few resignations, I understand (I was not a member myself, and didn't follow it at the time). The same point may form a strong connection with people like Kevin Rudd. This would be something I am not too happy about, but I must admit that the GB members of the Govt keep it mostly under wraps when out in public.

Just Me

23/07/2009"[i]Or was the epiphany simply accepting that in the real world of politics there is conflict and that observance by ministers of Cabinet decisions must override personal convictions?[/i] " That is all it is. The hard reality of major party politics. All party politicians across the political spectrum have to submit to party discipline if they want to advance up the ranks. Anybody seriously criticising Garret for doing the same is etierh an idiot, or a opportunistic hypocrite. I mean, can you imagine the hysterical conniptions that the Great Commentariat would be indulging in if he had refused to approve the mine?

Just Me

23/07/2009is either an idiot, or an opportunistic hypocrite.

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23/07/2009Kersebleptes, Welcome to [i]The Political Sword[/i]. I'm not aware of the religious undertones in the ACF to which you allude, or how that might be playing out in Peter Garrett's relationship with Kevin Rudd, or the Government. I couldn't decipher 'GB members of the Govt'. Just Me, I agree. What surprised me in media not usually well disposed towards the Government was how accepting most journalists were of Garrett’s conflicts and how sensibly he was managing them. It was only Piers Akerman who was totally dismissive of Garrett, an attitude we've come to expect from him. If, because of his personal convictions, Garrett had not approved the mine despite it meeting the required specifications, there would have been howls of disapproval and condemnation, and the case for his removal from the portfolio would have gained traction. The way he has behaved in this decision strengthens the case for his retaining that position.


23/07/2009Ad Astra, Thank you for the welcome. Fair enough. I didn't mean that the ACF was a "religiously influenced/dominated" organisation, but that Garrett had tried to push its members in that direction. I actually meant "god botherers" by GB, but didn't want to yell it too arrogantly.

Sir Ian Crisp

23/07/2009Why the surprise when Peter Garrett ditched his bark hut philosophy? His idealism has soon enough given way to his cupidity as he grasps the Queen’s shilling. The manner of Garrett’s arrival must be borne in mind. He was parachuted into the safe ALP seat of Kingsford Smith so his acceptance of the proud ALP traditions of preselecting candidates gave way to political expedience. He also dispensed with the need to vote for…what was it?...two or three elections. He is not the only politician with malleable idealism. A former ALP leader and staunch republican accepted the Queen’s shilling by serving as our GG. So much for commitment. Ad Astra, you pose the question: “What do we make of all this?” in relation to Garrett. You toss in the old bell-shaped curves for good measure. My take is that the ‘bell’ has sounded a tocsin for all of us. That warning says more trust can be invested in used car salespeople (being PC), members of the legal club and even the nightly parade of nasties on Today Tonight and A Current Affair than can be invested in politicians. Treat our politicians with respect you say in your earlier piece. Respect is earned; it is not created ex nihilo because Joe Bloggs has arrived on the political scene.

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23/07/2009Kersebleptes, Thanks for the explanation. I'll add 'GB' to my lexicon. Sir Ian, I can see you're no fan of Peter Garrett, or politicians generally for that matter. I still cling to the view that most politicians do take on the game to make a difference, but don't always succeed as they may have wished or intended. And I still feel that if the media was less aggressive, less suspicious, less intent on drawing blood, the interaction between media and politician would be more productive and deliver better understanding to the intended audience, the people of Australia. But maybe that's a naive and pointless dream.


23/07/2009You have to be a pretty ignorant sod not to change you mind when presented with sound arguments. I can't understand why extreme right wingers seem to think changing one's mind is a disaster when many of them started out on the extreme left.


24/07/2009Garrett's critics are those who are either ignorant of the workings of a political party and the decision making discussions that go on within a government or they are simply people who will not, and will never ever be able to see the nose in front of their faces. People like Peter Garrett who have strong convictions on an issue/s, work hard to get themselves into positions where they can make a difference by arguing their case where it matters most. They know, and everyone else should know, that more often than not the wins, if any at all, will be small, but it is far better to fail or win in small ways than not to have tried at all. I just don't think change can come about without compromise, and I think the greatest stumbling block for the Greens is their unwillingness to compromise.

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24/07/2009charles, janice, Thank you for your comments. The focus on Peter Garrett seems to have faded away. I guess the CPRS debate has overtaken it. Might write something on this at the weekend if the unfolding saga slows down enough for anyone to get a fix on what the Coalition is actually going to do.


24/07/2009Just adding my bit altho late. I like Garrett's courage in making decisions in line with the decision made by the Party he joined. He must have known he's be called on to do this and he has done it with dignity in the face of some awful comments by many who probably have never had to make a hard choice on anything. I agree with Peter Garrett - he can do more inside the tent to influence the way things are done than outside it.

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24/07/2009BH, Agree - the Garrett story has come and gone and he emerges looking pretty good. This story has been overtaken by the CPRS debate which changes almost hourly. I am trying to write something but the Coalition keeps changing its stance. I'll wait to see what emerges at the weekend.

Sir Ian Crisp

25/07/2009In a way this is allied to the warp thinking of people like Garrett. Time to slash and burn Stephen McMahon July 25, 2009 12:00am A HUGE clearance of scrub from properties and roadsides will be held in October to make Victoria safer ahead of the next bushfire season. Premier John Brumby said the community-based clean-up would help prevent a repeat of the Black Saturday inferno, which destroyed thousands of homes and claimed more than 170 lives.,,25830925-2862,00.html OT but it does look like I was right Ad Astra. I said if Brumby was the Victorian Premier he would have ordered burn offs to prevent the chance of a catastrophe. You said ‘hold fire’ until after the Royal Commission. I think we have a tacit admission by the alleged Premier of Victoria that more could have been done. There's no need to issue a 'thank you for your comment Sir Ian'. I know you appreciate my input.


25/07/2009"Better to lie on your feet than stick with the Greens" "Oh-oh, the passion for the power" "You've sometimes got to toe the party line" -it's too easy to satirise Garrett because he was too "out there" with his political and environmental views to begin with, at least in comparison with the anodyne bores we are usually offered as candidates. If 24.5% of his electorate feel betrayed and another 24.5% deride his "hypocrisy", that still leaves him with a 51% majority in the middle. I'm sure he's evolved enough as a human being to soak up the criticism and get on with doing a tough job rather well.

Just Me

25/07/2009Garret has handled the transition to mainstream politician pretty well so far, a lot better than his critics thought he would. He is smart, conscientious, and committed. While he has had some learning to do about mainstream party and parliamentary politics, he is also much more experienced at grass roots politics than many conventional politicians. Those who underestimate and dismiss him, usually based on their own ludicrously biased and caricatured assessment of him, do so at their own political peril. They made the same mistake with Julia Gillard, and others. But these folk are not soft naifs. They are the new wave of Labor, the next generation, and the times suit them. Their opponents better get used to it and learn to deal with them, coz they are serious, tough, and very capable, and are in it for the long haul. At this stage, any honest reckoning of Garret would have to conclude he probably has a good political career in front of him. And that is what is scaring his opponents.

Bushfire Bill

25/07/2009Another case of a Labor politician not fitting the neat and convenient box into which the pundits have sought to place him. They like their political concepts served up in bite-sized chunks. It's like a cheap movie script. There's The Precocious Kid. And then there's The Nerd Who Wears Glasses. We shed a tear when the Son Whose Dad Left Mom bonds with his father. And moving on, then there's The Hippie, toking joints. There's The Corrupt Mayor, and His Ditzy-Glam Wife. Oh look... over here is the Committed Greenie Who Turned Feral Uranium Miner. In Commentariat World the cliches get their just desserts by the time the end credits roll, we stash the leftover popcorn under the seat, and are gone by the time the obligatory "Stay till the end, there's a blooper coming up!" surprise is on-screen. What a shame the real world doesn't conform to the canned scripts our lazy opinionistas dredge out from their bottom drawers. But, to be fair, we criticised Ruddock for deciding to remain inside the tent. I still don't know for sure whether he's a bullshit artist or someone trying to make things less bad than they might have been. I suspect the former and hope for the latter (as he is my local member... although I've never voted for him, and never would). Garrett is learning politics the hard way. I think (or would like to think) he's keeping his powder dry, proving to the Boss that he can take the hits; waiting for the day when something [i]really[/i] important crops up and he can stake his reputation and his career on it. Peter is paying his dues. Let us hope there's a payoff for it.

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26/07/2009Sir Ian, ozymandias, Just Me, BB, Thank you for your comments. BB, your comments strike a chord - there seems to be some conjured-up image of what our politicians should be, how they should behave, should talk, should write, should look like - the 'canned scripts' to which you allude. Anyone who fails to conform is 'odd', to be criticised, castigated, demeaned. How have these images been generated? Is the image of John Howard still hovering and influencing the media's assessment of today's politicians? One would hope not, but many journalists have had no other prime ministerial image than that of Howard. Ghosts linger on.

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26/07/2009After all the talk about the CPRS these last few days, I have just posted on[i]TPS: Is the CPRS really a dog?[/i]
I have two politicians and add 17 clowns and 14 chimpanzees; how many clowns are there?