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There are some changes you can’t believe in.

25 July 2009 795 views No Comment

PETER Garrett must be the most conflicted man in federal parliament. The former Midnight Oil frontman, a protest singer in his day, once opposed the US defence alliance but now finds himself forced to support it. The politician who once hated everything nuclear now approves new uranium mines.

Presumably Garrett thought entering parliament would finally give him the chance to put his principles into practice. Instead he has discovered that the ALP was much more interested in profiting from his popularity than it was in embracing his values.

Garrett’s most successful day in politics was his first. After his initial media conference as Labor’s star recruit, held jointly with Mark Latham, some political insiders thought he had upstaged his then leader.

Ever since, it seems, Labor’s political professionals have been putting him down. Some of the cynical machine men who run Labor scoff at the naive idealists who vote for the party. In Garrett, the machine has found the perfect punching bag.

Garrett’s life before entering parliament is eloquent testimony to his passion for environmental protection. He more or less invented green music. At the height of his popularity as a performer he was a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate for the Senate.

But Garrett also wanted to be more than an advocate. Talented, charismatic and already successful in a tough field, with a huge youth following, he could hardly have failed to think that he would win over voters and his new party colleagues the way he once charmed rock fans and musos. In politics, however, ideals and a way with words are not enough.

It’s not enough to appeal to a devoted minority. To be a successful mainstream politician, not alienating the majority is even more important. Successful leaders are like musicians who can play jazz, classical and country and western, or like the conductors of large and fractious orchestras. What’s more, politics is populated by ambitious operatives who specialise in sabotaging other people’s careers for the sake of their own. This is the world in which Garrett works and he plainly is having trouble coming to terms with it.

As recently as 2007, when he was a shadow minister, Garrett told the ALP national conference: “I have long been opposed to uranium mining and I remain opposed to it. I am unapologetic about this. In fact, I am proud of it.” A politician who makes this statement one year but approves his first new mine just a year or so later, owes the public an explanation.

Perhaps the alternative was to approve more mines and this was the least worst option he could manage; perhaps these mines are now so safe and their product so safeguarded he is confident that no harm can come of them; or perhaps this was a compromise of principle made necessary by some higher good.

Without some explanation, Garrett looks like another cynical politician who says what he needs to, to be elected, but does what he has to, to stay in power. If anyone has the intelligence and, more importantly, the soul to explain and justify the tension between high principle and low politics, it is Garrett.

As things stand, in a government that is better at calling for things to happen than making them change, Garrett has become the minister for raising expectations then dashing them. He promised to take Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling. That never happened. He raised the prospect of banning plastic shopping bags. That never happened either.

Last week, he enthusiastically welcomed a proposal to ban tourists from climbing Ayers Rock-Uluru out of respect for Aboriginal sensibilities. This initiative lasted until the Prime Minister’s next chance to front the media. A transgression on a lesser scale, perhaps, but equal perfidy is his decision to allow the construction of a new federal police college above the NSW mainland’s last remaining penguin colony.

Count on it that if the Gunns pulp mill is financially viable, Garrett’s environmental scruples won’t be allowed to stand in its way. Labor is happy to be green when harvesting preferences but not when real jobs are at stake. That’s fair enough. The problem for Garrett is that he has spent his entire adult life, pre-politics, saying that environmental preservation is more important than short-term economic gain.

During the 2007 campaign, when challenged over Labor’s me-too policies, Garrett famously told broadcaster Steve Price that it would all change after the election. On the evidence so far, nothing seems to have changed as much as Garrett.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent book is Made in Queensland: A New History.

The Weekend Australian July 25, 2009