The manic ducking and weaving dance that Peter Garrett employed on stage when in Midnight Oil came in handy last week when the gangly Labor environment spokesman dodged tonnes of pulp mill effluent, thrown at him by erstwhile allies in the conservation movement.

Garrett is proving to be an intelligent, astute and mature political operative by keeping his distinctive head low and letting all the sh-t sail over him straight into the face of Liberal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull.

There is no political upside for Labor in Garrett saying anything more than he has already: that a Rudd Labor Government supports a pulp mill that is scientifically found to be environmentally safe to world’s best standards.

Garrett knows the smart play is to keep the focus on Malcolm Turnbull, because that’s who has to make the decision about the mill. Garrett has criticised Turnbull for failing to demand a rigorous assessment of the mill. That’s Garrett’s job, to keep the minister accountable, not to provide running commentary on what he would do in an imaginary world.

Garrett knows that if he comes out and says “this pulp mill stinks and I don’t like it” he’ll get a euphoric cheer that will last for all of five seconds before the media starts running stories on him being at odds with Tasmanian Labor premier Paul Lennon.

That will morph into stories asking “can Garrett be trusted with the big issues?” and headlines such as “Garrett captured by greens” or “Rudd skids on Oil patch”. You get the drift.

Next, we’ll see stories about Gunns’ workers and their families — no doubt lifelong Labor voters — worried about the future and in tears at Labor’s betrayal. Pro-mill businesspeople will come out of the woodwork, lamenting the loss of opportunity. These will segue nicely into stories on the mainland about how easy it is for bleeding hearts to capture Kevin Rudd’s agenda, and that Labor can’t be trusted with tough business decisions.

Cue the Prime Minister who will sail into Tassie tut-tutting to the good people of Bass and Braddon about what a dreadful mess Labor is making of their lives. With Gunns’ John Gay at his shoulder, nodding supportively, Howard will announce the mill is shifting from Bass to Braddon, with a $100 million federal assistance package to make it economically feasible.

Nothing to do with the election, of course, simply the best decision for Tasmania, its environment and the economy. The PM will look like a problem-fixing hero. He’ll be loved in Bass for taking the mill away and revered in Braddon for giving it. Labor will look on from the sidelines, licking its wounds. Bass and Braddon will stay with the Liberals. They might just be the two seats Labor needs to secure victory.

But the above scenario isn’t going to happen because Peter Garrett is too smart. He knows the best way to secure a better environment policy all round is with the election of a Rudd Labor Government and one way to make that happen is to keep the focus on Government shortcomings, rather than Labor promises (governments get thrown out, oppositions don’t get elected). A Rudd Labor Government will only get elected if it provides a safe, secure and reliable alternative to Howard.

This frightful reality might not please Bob Brown and other naive, disappointed fans of Peter Garrett but it shows how the Midnight Oiler has grown up and realised that when it comes to the power and the passion, power is where it’s really at.