“Hypocritical sell-out careerist”

“How Do You Sleep When Your Cred Is Burning”

“An environmental sell-out”

“The ultimate sell-out”

Those are some of the milder attacks on Peter Garrett, not merely courtesy of this week’s decision that the Four Mile uranium mine, subject to strict conditions, didn’t breach Commonwealth environmental protection requirements, but ever since he announced he was standing as Labor candidate in Kingsford-Smith.

Well, here’s a suggestion for anyone complaining that the Midnight Oil frontman and anti-nuclear activist is a sell-out: get over it.

Let’s start with the decision itself, which contrary to the perception you might have got from the press, had nothing to do with approving the mine itself. Garrett is not the Minister for Mining in South Australia. His responsibility was under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which lays down a specific process for assessing projects of potential national significance.

Criticism that Garrett failed to give vent to his professed anti-nuclear views in the exercise of his ministerial powers is staggering. Presumably his critics would prefer that he ignored evidence and his advice and simply decided whatever he felt like. Perhaps we should all do our jobs that way. But in Garrett’s case, as with any Minister of the Crown, he not merely has a responsibility to perform his duties appropriately, but his decisions are appellable. The Federal Court would overturn a bad decision, no matter how passionate the views of the Minister who made it.

And if people don’t like the way the EPBC constrains Ministers, well, Garrett initiated an inquiry into the Act, which Allan Hawke is still conducting. Send Dr Hawke a submission suggesting Ministers be given unlimited discretion to do what they like. That’s usually called “sovereign risk”.

Both Garrett’s shadow, Greg Hunt, and Malcolm Turnbull, called Garrett a hypocrite despite supporting the decision. That’s a bit rich from Turnbull, whom distant memory tells me is an ardent republican. I haven’t noticed Turnbull using his position as alternative Prime Minister to advocate for constitutional change lately.

The Greens’ Scott Ludlam, who is an opponent of all things radioactive, was more sensible, reserving his criticism for the decision itself and the scientific basis on which it was made.

The Greens don’t accept the logic that, even if a nuclear industry is unsuitable and far too expensive for Australia, other countries with established nuclear power programs might want to continue them, particularly given the carbon emissions intensity of alternatives like coal and gas. For the Greens, there is no safe way to use nuclear power, and Australia shouldn’t be selling uranium to anyone.

Garrett may hold the same views personally, but he joined a political party, participated in the nuclear debate within that party, and lost it. He has abided by the decision of his party. The alternative would be to spit the dummy and quit, an act that would rightly be regarded as one of petulance.

Garrett’s woes started when a joke was wilfully misinterpreted during the election campaign and beaten up by a media desperate to instil some life in what looked like a thrashing. Even Richard Wilkins, a man not internationally famous for his ability to spot a hoax, thought Garrett was joking in remarking Labor would “change it all when we get in.” Thereafter his appointment as Minister for Environment and the Arts was interpreted as a demotion as if, having been in Parliament three years, he should’ve been given a senior portfolio.

Ever since, Garrett has either been criticised from the Left for failing to do anything, or bagged from the Right whenever he has taken decisions supposedly more in keeping with his personal views. If it continues, which is perhaps the point of the repeated attacks on him, the Prime Minister might decide his high profile is a liability rather than an asset.

It’s odd, though, because everyone complains about the time-servers and careerists and hacks that now dominate politics. Garrett — like Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull — doesn’t have to be in politics, or in fact work at all. All could retire now and spend the rest of their days counting their money. All are in politics because they want to achieve genuine change. It would have been easy for Garrett to remain a musician and head of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Or he could have joined the Greens. Garrett would have had a good career as a Greens senator. You suspect much of the vituperation directed at him is because people resent that he didn’t do that.

Instead, he went for the tough option, joining a major political party and sticking his hand up for ministerial responsibility and accepting the requirements of party discipline. He did that because he could achieve more that way. And he has. Despite the constant criticism of the Government’s solar policies, the solar panels program was a huge success. Garrett successfully argued in Cabinet for a massive increase in funding after its initial allocation was used up far more quickly than expected. He also secured additional arts funding, particularly for indigenous arts. He got $4b for insulation in the stimulus package — a program Peter Costello proudly boasted of knocking off when brought forward by Turnbull as Environment Minister.

The real challenge as Minister for Environment is within government — any government — trying to win internal battles with pro-development and resource ministers, trying to secure and retain funding for environmental programs, trying to convince colleagues round the Cabinet table that the old jobs-versus-environment dichotomy is a con. Garrett’s won some and lost plenty as well. But he’d have known that when he took the decision to join Labor.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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