Fair's Fair for the Tall, Bald Poppy


Although he’s not responsible for the Climate Change portfolio, as Environment Minister, Peter Garrett will still be a crucial figure in how the public perceives Labor’s policy response to the Garnaut Report.

No doubt, the Opposition will find some special barbs for Garrett as they adopt scaremongering tactics, but making fun of the former rock star seems to be increasingly a national pastime. For Garrett, it has been quite a metamorphosis from stadium colossus to political target.

As the front man of Midnight Oil, Garrett had a gripping onstage presence. He would flail around and storm about, furiously eyeball the crowd and belt out lyrics with all the wanton expense of energy of an athlete in the last yards of gold medal race. Like Keating at the dispatch box or Gilchrist at the crease, Garrett in his artistic prime was an unmatchable performer who dominated the arena.

Then there was his evident clarity of vision. Even those who loathed Midnight Oil’s music, or despised the band’s politics often gave Garrett a certain grudging respect. Here, surely was a man of unconditional principle. Ideology was made lyrical in songs targeted at corporate and political wrongdoers, a synthesis exemplified by the 1990 protest concert staged on the Avenue of the Americas facing the Exxon Building in New York.

But then something changed. In 2004, Garrett became the Labor member for Kingsford Smith. The unconventional stage clothes were abandoned for the suit and tie. To use Kerry O’Brien‘s colorful phrase, Garrett began to be "scrutinised up the wazoo". Inevitably, there were cries of "sell-out". It was the start of the national sport of having a go at Garrett MP who had become just another tall poppy.

What makes it particularly hard for Garrett is that he is still measured against his former life. Garrett sang: "The time has come/To say fair’s fair/To pay the rent/To pay our share", so why can’t he fix Indigenous affairs? On stage he was clear: "So you cut all the tall trees down/You poisoned the sky and the sea… There should be enough for us all/But the dollar is driving us still", so why can’t he sort out corporate excess and fix the environment? Remember the lyrics: "Blue collar work it don’t get you nowhere/You just go round and round in debt"? So, why hasn’t he dealt with the credit crisis?

The answer is that the conviction politics of the campaigning musician are different to what is required to be effective in caucus and Cabinet.

The unstated accusation is that Garrett should bring the same transcendence to politics that characterised his presentation as a singer. But what is legitimate and powerful as an activist rock star is not appropriate and would be of dubious use in a Westminster politician.

Garrett the parliamentarian should not be expected to act as a be-suited replica of his earlier self. And neither should we want him to, because political systems where charismatic leaders harangue frenzied crowds with simplified messages don’t tend to be very democratic in nature.

Garrett is a pragmatist with principles. Had he taken the path of running for the Greens, then perhaps more of the singer-activist might have remained. But as Mungo MacCallum put it before the last election, Garrett opted for the ALP because he "became convinced that actually achieving change for the better, imperfect though it might be, was more useful than spending the rest of his life yearning for an unattainable green utopia."

We cannot expect Garrett the minister to project the magnetism of a rock star in concert mode or deliver on the slogans of an activist. Instead, the Member for Kingsford Smith should be assessed on what he is now: a 55-year-old newish member of Cabinet in an equally fresh government working to deliver on his portfolio responsibilities in a complex world.

Garrett’s effectiveness, like that of every other parliamentarian, is a matter of legitimate debate, but in assessing his efforts, let’s try to ignore the giant bald shadow that will be forever dancing and gesticulating furiously on the wall behind him.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.