June 11, 2004 | Graham

Cabinet for comment?

Oh to be an actor. You get to play make-believe every day. Or a rock star, even a social campaigning one. Seems that lyrics are no more than the words that come out of your mouth, not the beliefs that you hold in your heart. Having a social conscience is a way of connecting with your audience and making a living, but it doesn’t go to the core of who or what you are. Being anti-commercial is just another commercial hook. There some of the conclusions I draw from the extraordinary back-flip by Midnight Oil’s lead singer Peter Garrett.
Now he’s found another game to play, and he’s happy to change the script, as long as he makes a connection with his new audience. What about closing Pine Gap? “No, not on your life, I’ve grown up. The war on terror is now the most important thing in life.” Well, what would you do to protect old growth forests? “Got to protect jobs first”. A rough paraphrase of his ABC interview from last night, but you can read the original here and see if I’m unjustly putting words into his mouth.
This makes it clearer now what the ALP thinks it is getting from Garrett. He’s not their environment policy, he’s just another spruiker. If you’re selling telephones, you get your agent to get in touch with John Laws or Allan Jones and sign them up to the team. It doesn’t matter what they say or recommend, people will buy it, because they have credibility.
Same deal here. The ALP is betting that Garrett’s celebrity will change voters’ policy shopping habits. Peter Garrett thinks we should keep Pine Gap and jobs in the forest industries? If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us. Carn the ALP. Not cash for comment, but presumably cabinet for comment.
If this is what they are buying, I think they are going to be sorely disappointed. It’s more likely that Garrett will become a figure of pity to most of us. The man that could have made a difference but gave it away in a Faustian bargain.
Garrett of course has his justifications. Politics is an “imperfect game”, but you can achieve more inside the tent than outside. Well, Pete, I’ve got news for you. I was inside the tent for 20 years (and I still keep my season’s pass in the form of a Liberal party membership, so you could actually call it 27), but that doesn’t give you much influence. I’ve spent years chairing policy committees, moving motions and even winning elections only to see some of my most cherished beliefs trashed by the people I’ve fed and got into government. Talk to any party member, even the most senior, and you will find similar stories. Most of them don’t have options. They draw their strength from the institutions of their chosen party, but you do have options. You are (or at least were before this) an institution in your own right.
If you think that you’re going to have more influence as a member of caucus than you do now, you are going to find you are mistaken. If you think that it’s a fair trade so long as you get power, you are also going to be mistaken. In a government the only people with the sort of power that counts are the Prime Minister or Premier and the most senior members of his or her staff. Oh, and the public servants, who can thwart you at every step.
But then, maybe having made a mark in show business Garrett thinks it is only a matter of time until he does become Prime Minister. Or perhaps he thinks that Mark Latham knows all his lyrics and is such a great fan that he will be permanently camped outside the door of the Prime Ministerial office just so Australia’s newest Labor PM can tap into his insight on every issue.
So far Garrett has had an easy ride, but the Prime Minister is due back from overseas soon, and things will be likely to change. The government attack has concentrated on whether Garrett voted in the last few elections. Well, despite what Garrett says, I don’t believe that he did, but I don’t think the public will care about this for itself. They will care if it makes him look like just another politician.
(Why don’t I believe him? Well even if you are on the “silent” roll, your name is still on the roll, they just suppress your contact details, and you either have to be crossed off the roll when you vote or claim a section vote saying you have been wrongly excluded. This doesn’t square with any of the recollections that he has of his voting. Apparently being Peter Garrett means that polling officers just unquestioningly hand a ballot paper across, even at the Australian embassy! Pull the other one.)
Of course, failure in this sphere of life will be no problem for Garrett. When he gets bored of it he will be able to move on. There are plenty of other commercial concerns who will no doubt arrange for him to swig down energy drinks, drape watches all over his body or put superannuation prospectuses in his hand at the same time paying him huge sums of money and photographing him because they, like Labor, think that other people will buy them because of Garrett’s endorsement.
It’s so 21st Century really. Garrett is important not because of his convictions but because of his celebrity. We’re supposed to buy him not because of what he stands for, but just because he is who he is. The symbol becomes the substance. What if this is the way that the world ends, not with a nuclear bang, but a slow, undifferentiated, a-principled whimper? Something tells me that even if they’re not our beds ought to be burning.

Posted by Graham at 11:13 am | Comments (9) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. I was amused and a bit disconcerted when Arnie ran for Govenor, the same goes for Garett and the Labor Party, this is a little silly, sure he has the right to run for parliament representing an electorate he’s never lived in and for a party whose policies he has vocally diasgreed with in the past, but won’t he come out looking very fake for doing so?

    Comment by matt byrne — June 11, 2004 @ 12:46 pm

  2. Geez, I didn’t notice Arnie changing his tune on too many issues. He was clearly identified as a Republican and he was nominating for the top job, so he gets a degree of control that Garrett probably never will.
    Garrett may have sold his soul for little more than a mess of pottage, and if voters realise that they will be repulsed rather than attracted.

    Comment by Graham Young — June 11, 2004 @ 1:00 pm

  3. That maybe true, but i was talking mainly of their use as celebrities to win a seat or post for a political party (labor or republican), this worked well for the Republicans but may yet prove terrible for the Labor party.
    When a celebrity runs for parliament it appears to be easier to see them as merely popularity pollsters, and suceptible to becoming puppets of the party (which doesn’t make them different from most MPs anyway but the perception is easier to make), thats why i felt disconcerted when Arnie ran and when I found out Garett was running.

    Comment by matt byrne — June 11, 2004 @ 10:13 pm

  4. Graham, I’m a little bemused by your claims about the enrolment/voting procedures. Having worked for the AEC crossing names off the roll, I can say it is very easy to cast a ballot (which will later be excluded) without knowing you are not enrolled, and without knowing the ballot was later discarded.
    But don’t take my word for it, take the word of Assistant Commissioner Brian Hallett:

    I can think of instances where for example we have, you know, undertaken what we call roll review, where we have checked a particular address and a person has gone overseas; we are unable to locate the person so we’ve gone through a fairly involved process of actually taking that person’s name off the roll, which is part of our duty – to keep an accurate roll.
    Meanwhile, the elector is actually overseas and is unaware of this happening, and of course in good faith goes to an Australian Embassy and attempts to vote, but of course when those ballot papers come back to Australia they can’t be admitted.

    If you’re casting an absentee ballot, you turn up at a polling place and are told you’re not on the roll for that area. Not to worry, you tell them, I’m on the roll elsewhere. So they make you sign a declaration telling them where you’re enrolled, you stick your ballot paper in a couple of envelopes, and they send it to the correct electorate to be verified. So you think you’ve voted, and nobody tells you you’re not enrolled. When it gets to that electorate, they find you’ve dropped off the roll, and they discard the ballot. They try to contact you, but since they don’t have your address — you’re not on the roll, remember? — they can’t. So you could go through several elections without finding out you’re not enrolled, particularly if you’re often travelling around Australia and the world.

    Comment by Robert — June 13, 2004 @ 2:18 pm

  5. Whoops, I didn’t realise the HTML would be stripped. Everything from “I can think of instances…” to “…can’t be admitted” is from Hallett’s interview with AM:

    Comment by Robert — June 13, 2004 @ 2:20 pm

  6. Robert,
    On reflection you are probably right about voting overseas, but I note Garrett only claims to have done this once. However, there are 6 state and federal elections all up where he was apparently outside Australia or the state of NSW when he voted and so didn’t have to be crossed off the roll and didn’t realise that there was a problem. I find that hard to believe.
    That’s apart from the fact that most people know that you have to change your enrolment when you move, and make the adjustment.
    I don’t think on its own this issue should be a major problem for Garrett. I do think that the correct response is to say “Yep, looks like I made a mistake. I cannot defend what I have done, or failed to do, but there is nothing I can do about it now, and believe me, afterall this embarrassment, there is no way I will do it again.”
    You might embroider it a little by saying that you’re not the only one who has been so alienated from the political process that you haven’t voted, there are x million other Australians in the same boat. And then go on to say that the reason you’re nominating is because you believe Mark Latham can really make a difference.

    Comment by Graham Young — June 13, 2004 @ 3:23 pm

  7. All this says is that the Labor Party, or indeed any other party, can’t win. Labor’s current NSW MPs are routinely pilloried in the Daily Telegraph, and by Tony Abbott and Peter Costello in Parliament, as a bunch of boring as bat-shit party hacks who never had a real job outside of being a trade union bureaucrat or a minor functionary for an MP or the party Head Office, who were then parachuted into parliament by their old factional mates.
    Labor has a real issue, particularly in NSW, about the lack of public profile of its candidates comapred to who the Liberals have put up, such as Jackie Kelly in Lindsay and Pat Farmer in Macarthur.
    Indeed, walking into town on Saturday, I found myself confronted by Ingrid Tall, former AMA (Queensland) State President, and Liberal candidate for Arch Bevis’s Brisbane seat at the next Federal election, wanting to talk with me about what the local issues were in Kelvin Grove. I may be wrong, but I’d be very surprised if Ingrid Tall spent many nights at Liberal Party branch meeting discussing delegates for State Conference, and earned her party nomination on the basis of her sterling work in keeping branch minutes and auditing the finances.
    Peter Garrett may be good, or may be a disaster. Who would know in advance. My point is that, when far more Australians are spending their Monday nights watching gay men tell them how to make sushi than sitting in the uncomfortable chairs of a draughty school hall at their local party branch meeting, we should not be surprised or alarmed that public profile achieved through the media becomes a basis for political parties secting their would-be MPs.

    Comment by Terry Flew — June 13, 2004 @ 11:37 pm

  8. I am in the uncomfortable position of not disagreeing with Graham on this. I was never a fan of Garrett’s – music or personality, but it is somewhat sickening to see him jingling his thirty pieces of silver with such aplomb. Especially when the person he has truly betrayed is himself.
    But y’know he wanted to come in from the cold. Yet again I repeat that this is the world the Right has made. Everywhere the Right has triumphed over the Left. So what is surprising at yet another casualty from that war running up the white flag?
    One cannot condemn him from the Right. Only the those who fought for a different world have that right.
    The necessity for pragmatic abandonment of principles is the first law in the arena which defines politics as the art of the possible. Moreover it is a law subscribed to by all the major parties.
    Graham did you really believe that all those 27 years as a member of the Liberal Party would produce a different kind of world? I know you did. But how?

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — June 15, 2004 @ 4:49 pm

  9. Of course I thought my time in the Liberal Party could make a difference, and despite what I wrote I think it did make a difference, but I eventually ran into road blocks that didn’t look the reward was equal to the effort in running them down. So I decided to explore other ways of making a difference. I’m one of the lucky ones, I have other avenues and I have abilities to push the envelope in other ways.
    Garrett was in an extremely powerful position. I don’t agree that he had to compromise to achieve. The Right hasn’t constructed a world where we all need to conform. No-one forced him. There is no iron law of conformity.
    I believe that debates need both the outliers – who set out the parameters within which the debate will be conducted – and the negotiators – those who can pull together the coalition of interests required to change things. The outliers actually have the most influence, but the least power, and because they are outliers they are by definition much rarer than the generals in the middle.
    I actually feel sad for Garrett. What a pass to come to.

    Comment by Graham Young — June 17, 2004 @ 12:31 am

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