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 ideals, Janet 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?