“Is truth then so variable? Is it one thing at 20 and another at 40? […] Were we fool then, or are we dishonest now?”

Such was the essayist William Hazlitt’s response to the recantation of a once radical friend. His words might have been written for Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett — except that Garrett can’t really claim to be reneging only on principles he held as a giddy youth. Why, as recently as 2006, he was still talking up the anti-nuclear movement and urging Australians to oppose new mines.

That year, he gave an interview to 60 Minutes.

GARRETT: Nuclear is a dirty word because the stuff ends up in nuclear weapons, because the waste is highly toxic, highly carcinogenic, lasts for incredibly long periods of time. […] Why would Australians support an industry that produces radioactive waste, toxic waste? Why would you support an industry which leaves you with the long-term problem of having to take care of that waste, of guarding against terrorism, and floods, or possible earthquakes down the track. What I’m saying is it’s not the right path for Australia to take.


GARRETT: Absolutely.

In that exchange, Garrett explicitly and repeatedly replied to all the arguments he now makes for the Four Mile uranium mine. Today, for instance, he tells us that Four Mile “poses no credible risk to the environment” because it was subjected to a “rigorous and comprehensive assessment”.

In 2006, he scoffed at such assurances on the basis that nuclear waste remained deadly for for tens of thousand of years, and guarantees of safety over such periods amounted to “vanity and … hubris” — exactly the point that South Australian Greens MP Mark Parnell makes today.

So fool then or liar now?

It’s not just on the immediately environmental that Garrett dances to a different tune. In 2002, back in his Australian Conservation Foundation days, he wrote an account of the anti-nuclear movement under the suddenly ironic title “A saga of staunch resistance.” In that document, alongside the standard demands for Labor to live up to its promises (oops!), he explained:

We support Aboriginal peoples having a right of veto over nuclear projects on their traditional lands. As the Mirrar people have said in their fight against Jabiluka, “Nothing can replace our country when it’s mined. Nothing can reverse the damage to our water system and our food sources. Our culture cannot be replaced by money.”

Geraldine Anderson from the Adnyamathana people might be interested to learn about how the Minister for Sorry T-shirts supports Aboriginal vetos. About the Four Mile project, Anderson says:

This Labor Government is saying sorry to the Stolen Generation, on the other hand they’re taking the way of destroying our sites and taking our identity away. So when’s this going to stop?

Not with the current minister in the portfolio, one suspects.

Garrett’s hinted that his public positions don’t necessarily reflect his private views. In party forums, you see, he’s ever so fierce, a real tiger. But “I am now a cabinet minister, and the decisions I am taking are consistent with policy that the Government took and continues to take to the people.”

Funny. He used to have a line on that, too. In the 1980s, Garrett walked out of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in protest about the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Drew Hutton, the historian of the environment, writers that Garrett feared the influence of the minuscule SWP because of its “strong caucusing and party discipline.”

Strong caucusing? Party discipline? A few days ago, Rudd forced Garrett to eat crow publicly over the suggestion that tourists not be allowed to trample all over Uluru. When it comes to democratic centralism, Lenin had nothing on modern Labor.

Who knows? Maybe Garrett really thinks he’s still achieving something, a deep cover environmental mole burrowing away inside the ALP, sacrificing battle after battle so that the greater war can be won.

But as Hazlitt also explained, hypocrites invariably try to make dupes of themselves, too.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey