Garrett, Gunns and Greens


When Peter Garrett faces the Sydney electorate of Kingsford Smith this Federal election, he can be pretty confident of being returned a happier experience than his first tilt at politics. Any Midnight Oil fans and environmental activists who thought Garrett was ‘selling out, man’ by joining Labor in 2004 need to recall his run for the Senate in 1984, as the lead candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP). He just missed the quota, largely due to the ALP withholding preferences.

This was no doubt a frustrating experience. Still, it added to his public profile, leading to stints as Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) president, Greenpeace board member, etc, and reinforcing his persona as Australia’s most ‘political’ greenie-activist rock star.

With this pedigree, it would have seemed logical to choose the Greens for another shot at Parliament. But the prospect of a second failed run for the Senate, made the offer by ‘Mad’ Mark Latham of Laurie ‘Monorail’ Brereton’s safe beachside seat too good to refuse overcoming any lingering grudges over Labor wrecking his NDP run 20 years before. The local branches weren’t too happy initially about having a celebrity candidate parachuted in, but Garrett still won with an increased majority (8.7 per cent margin, up 1.9 per cent).

As well as electability, joining the ALP has given Garrett the prospect of being in Government, as Environment & Arts Minister, no less the luvvies will be thrilled! This could never have happened if he’d run for the Greens, despite their wild fantasies of entering into a German-style Coalition with Labor one day. Access to the reins of actual, hard-core, ball-busting ministerial power not poncy, hissy-fitting amendment-passing in the Senate is a Faustian pact which continues to upset Greens.

Soon after entering Parliament, Garrett had some awkward moments when asked how his previous stances against the USA’s military and foreign policies (outlined in his 1987 book Political Blues, as if the song ‘ US Forces’ wasn’t enough) stood with his new ALP membership. He came up with some platitudes about how he actually did support the Australian-US alliance, and how the US bases (sorry, joint facilities) in Australia played a valuable role in counterproliferation and counterterrorism.

Not many were entirely convinced.

The ALP’s recent decision to support the Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania only confirms the sense that the Party has betrayed high environmental principles. The fallout continues, the ACF last week released their assessment of the Parties’ environmental policies, with Labor only getting 49 out of 100 (the Coalition gets 21, Family First 31, while the Democrats and Greens get over 90, natch). This week’s Climate Institute report card was even tougher on Labor: Greens 90 per cent, Democrats 83, ALP 40, Family First 30 and the Coalition 23.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Bob Brown has said the Gunns decision is the final straw effectively ending his long friendship with Garrett. But the Greens leader should have known what to expect after the ALP National Conference earlier this year confirmed a policy allowing expanded uranium mining (a policy Garrett argued against inside the Party, but ended up having to endorse).

Garrett’s support for the Gunn’s pulp mill is no doubt filtered through the memory of 2004, when Latham’s collapsing campaign was given its final stomp in the guts by Tasmanian forestry workers from the CFMEU enthusiastically cheering John Howard at a pro-logging rally. With the possibility of picking up the Tasmanian seats of Bass (Liberal margin 2.6 per cent) and Braddon (Liberal 1.1 per cent), there’s no way Kevin Rudd is going to risk a repeat of that debacle.

As with so much of Labor policy, Rudd has therefore gone for the small-target, ‘me-too’ wedge-dodge.

He and Garrett palmed off the pulp mill decision onto the Chief Scientist and the Lennon ALP State Government which can presumably be held responsible in the future, most likely when dioxin discharges make cute baby seals sick. (Don’t believe the hype about wall-to-wall Labor governments the Feds and Staters always fight like a sack of cats, no matter that they’re all ‘bruvvers.’)

Maybe Garrett will be spared if the ACF gets its way. Having announced a series of legal challenges to the mill, the ACF’s case in the Federal Court (and then possibly the High Court) will at least delay the project.

Garrett no doubt hopes environment-minded voters will forget all this amid the campaign hurly-burly. After all, he wants to highlight his role as point man in one of the few areas where Labor policy actually differs from the Coalition’s namely the ‘big picture’ of climate change. (There’s opposing WorkChoices, the war in Iraq, and um there must be something else.)

By pledging to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and with recent photos with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore as implicit endorsement, Rudd and Garrett are staking their claim as being truly sincere and visionary on tackling climate change compared to the Howard’s last-minute conversion and feigned interest.

Garrett is hoping that claiming the lead on climate change and opposing the development of a nuclear power industry there you go, another policy difference! will help assuage the angst over the pulp mill and uranium mining decisions. With Greens preferences going Labor’s way where else would they go? the ALP can most likely count on coming out ahead on the environment.

(And then there’s the delicious prospect of a Greens backlash over Tasmania hurting Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Imagine Turnbull being turfed out of Wentworth through an alliance of wrathful, inner-city greenies, doctor’s wives, and gays and lesbians angry over same-sex rights.)

The best the Greens can hope for at this election is to make trouble for Labor in the Senate as happened in 1993 when Senators Christabel Chamarette and Dee Margetts had a special knack for annoying then-Labor Senate Leader Gareth Evans.

This is an intriguing possibility with the Democrats being put out of their misery and Pauline Hanson in Queensland looking like only providing comic relief although ‘No-Pokies’ Nick Xenophon in South Australia complicates things. Bob Brown might hope to get some revenge against Garrett by being a nuisance to a future Rudd Government.

But even if the Greens continue to rail against Garrett for ‘selling out,’ he may be able to brush off the barbs from the comfort of a plush, ministerial office. While Rudd has said no ministerial positions are secure apart from those of Tanner, Swan and Gillard, it’s pretty likely Garrett will remain in Environment. (A move to Indigenous Affairs is a possibility, but it might be construed as a demotion, given the ‘poisoned chalice’ status of that portfolio.)

Unlike 1984, this time Garrett looks like ending up on the comfy seats with the lure of real power to stoke whatever remaining passions the ALP machine has pragmatically let him keep.


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