Is Peter Garrett selling his soul?

Garrett PRocktivist (a word I intend to use henceforth to refer to the likes of Bono and Chris Martin) Peter Garrett, the former ACF President and Greenpeace board member, is now Labor’s environment spokesman. Never before has someone with such an impeccably green background been in a position to actually become the Environment Minister. But in the words of a song he co-wrote, has Labor’s celeb politician decided to “Sell my soul to him”? Which sounds even worse, I fear, when “Him” is Kevin Rudd.

Even Garrett’s new portfolio itself makes clear what he wants to do. “Environment and Climate Change” puts the most front-of-mind environmental issue right there in his title. Labor has, of course, long been the party of Kyoto, and despite John Howard’s attempts to outflank them recently on this issue with his ‘taskforce’, the appointment of Garrett brands Labor as indisputably the more serious of the two major parties on this issues. It’ll be very hard for the Liberals to out-green someone who’s been identified with the cause for decades.

But Bob Brown, who expressed his disappointment when Garrett opted for the ALP over his party in 2004, has made the obvious attack on his one-time fellow-traveller, saying “Frankly, I doubt Peter Garrett will be let off the leash to take on the coal and uranium industries.”

He won’t be completely free to speak his mind, of course. That just doesn’t happen in Labor, unless you’re Mark Latham and/or nuts. And this, of course, leads to the key question faced by everyone involved in a minor party. Is it better to remain ideologically pure but never have a chance of actually running the show, or to make the necessary compromises in the hope that you can actually bring about change? Less change than you might have sought when you were an angry activist, of course, but far more than you ever achieved by playing the bongos at Glebe Markets each Saturday.

Garrett’s seen how the other half live as a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate in the 1980s. He put up a very credible electoral showing, but ultimately the only thing the NDP disarmed was itself. Whereas with ALP preselection in a safe seat, he waltzed in. But still, it’s a long way from playing a protest gig at Jabiluka to being the guy that would have to cut deals with uranium producers to protect a hugely lucrative industry.

The criticism of his former colleagues is something Garrett’s going to have to get used to now that he’s become a politician and, inevitably, a pragmatist. Because while the kinds of people who get into inflatable dinghies and buzz the French navy have their place, that place is challenging the people who run the show, not being them. We need environmentalists in organisations like Greenpeace to maintain their rage, not make policy. They can ignore conundrums like the loss of jobs, whether nuclear power really is greener than coal (as the French government recently decided), or whether to use deodorant. And that’s fine.

But now Garrett has to juggle all these things, because there’s no point having superior policies if you’re in Opposition. All you end up with is a Prime Minister that refuses to ratify Kyoto instead of one that would. When achieving that one change in policy would do more than being the keynote speaker at a thousand angry but ineffective rallies.

And that’s why I admire Garrett all the more for getting in the ring and putting his reputation on the line. Because while he clearly wouldn’t get everything he wants, I’d rather have him in the Environment Minister’s chair than anyone else on offer in either party. Given his c.v., we can trust him to do as much as possible, and to agonise over everything he has to trade away. And in Canberra, that’s the most we can expect.

It’s all very well to sing angry, self-righteous songs about the planet. But no-one ever saved the world with a guitar strapped round their neck. (Could someone please tell Sting?) It’s by hammering out the difficult compromises that the world is actually changed. The reality is that if Peter Garrett can even slightly alter our course on global warming, he’ll have done more than he ever did in all those years as the president of the ACF.

Dominic Knight

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