Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Peter: when Canberra's forces give the nod, who's gonna save you?

By John Schumann - posted Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Dear Pete,

You might recall that at the launch of Rob Hirst's book, Willie's Bar and Grill, we spoke briefly about your possible move into politics. In the course of the conversation I observed that I'd been through that country, and I offered to lend you my map. Here it is.

This ALP thing is not one of your better ideas but you've probably worked that out by now. Whatever happens now, you're going to be seen as an ALP partisan and that can only detract from your credibility in the future. As I said, I've been though that country and I've still got the map, complete with the bloodstains.


Other than seeking us out for a photo opportunity, the political world has little or no regard for those of us in the music industry. And that's fair enough. You and I know that there are a range of skills, experiences and contacts picked up along the way that are transferable to the political arena. But in reality, parliamentary politics is a whole new song and a pretty complicated one at that. Most of the time your new comrades won't even let you look at the chord chart, and there are no roadies to coil your microphone lead and put the Staminade out on the drum-riser.

As the "elder statesman of complaint folk-rock" (as Rob calls me), with a few achievements under my own belt, I came to Canberra as a mere adviser. In a nanosecond I was dismissed as a "bearded folk singer". They're doing exactly the same to you now by constantly referring to you as a "rock star". In the 1980s we were rock stars (of different sorts) and it was an epithet we didn't necessarily shy away from. Now, it is a pejorative phrase seized upon with glee by political opponents.

I can't imagine that you're delighted about the Kingsford Smith furore. I'm sure you have a great deal of sympathy with the sub-branch members. I know I do. For years, these ordinary ALP members have gone to endless dreary meetings, made phone calls, shaken hands, kissed children and handed out bits of cardboard in wind-swept shopping centre car parks. All of this in the faint hope that, eventually, they'll get to pull on a pale-pink guernsey for the big game in Canberra. I know you have a well-developed sense of justice and it won't sit easily with the knowledge that you're being choppered in over the crowd to the backstage area.

I invite you to reflect, for a moment, on the inexpert way this has been handled, both in the media and the party. Win, lose or draw, my fear is your effectiveness will be diminished by this manure fight. And don't think this hasn't been considered by those who are at present professing undying comradeship. Be aware that some of the people who are supporting you in all this will be the very ones to knife you if they think you're going to jump the queue to the Lodge. One of the things I learned pretty quickly in Canberra is that your deadliest enemies are always playing in your own band.

I imagine you chose to align yourself with the ALP because they promised you a spot on the front bench and you think you will be able to make a difference. The NSW ALP Right delivers more than pizzas and there's no doubt that they will deliver on their promise. But what about making a difference? If you think the unions will stand by quietly while you work to save the Tarkine, the Styx and the Huon and Picton valleys, for instance, you'd better give me a call. Remember, the ALP voted in the Senate, with the Howard government, to exclude Australia's forests from the protection of the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. As Rob wrote once: "Short memory - must have a short memory."

I've got some close mates in the ALP but that doesn't stop me from observing that it's not the principled, ideologically pure organisation that it would have you believe.


Politics is about the art of compromise. As president of the Australian Conservation Foundation you always insisted on 100 per cent of whatever agenda you were running. That's what lobby groups do.

Inside the tent, however, it's a different matter. You can "do a Bob Brown" and accept nothing less than 100 per cent of what you want, thereby achieving nothing, or you can compromise. But when you compromise, and you will, the very people who nurtured and supported you in your political activism to date will turn on you. You'll need to grow a thick skin very quickly. Accustomed as musicians are to respect, affection and adulation, it is distinctly unpleasant when people ring you and write to you accusing you of selling out. And the unpleasantness, it doesn't stop with you. It seeps remorselessly into your family.

When you are a leading figure in the entertainment industry, it's easy to make political pronouncements without fear or favour. And, by and large, the fans and the community respond with admiration and loud applause. However, the ALP caucus room is far removed from a capacity crowd at the Newcastle Workers Club. In government or opposition, there'll be a whole pile of legislation to which you'll object in conscience. But you will be forced to put your hand up.

Right now, the Canberra press gallery is in a lather at the prospect of you walking the corridors. There are enough Oils fans up there to keep you safe for a while, I imagine. But remember, the press gallery is like a black snake in a tent. As long as you stand very still, you're fine. But if you lash out at it or move too quickly, it will bite you- with some relish.

If you go ahead with this, I hope very sincerely that it works out for you. I haven't always agreed with you, as you know, but I value your voice, your passion and your deep commitment. You might be the one who makes the difference in the ALP, the one who delivers a bit more than empty symbolism and rhetoric. I really hope you are the one. We all do.

Oh, and I saw Downer gave you a bit of a touch-up on Tuesday night on TV. Give me a ring. I've got some great Alexander one-liners you can use.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

This article was first published in The Age on 11 June 2004.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

John Schumann is a writer/performer and runs his own Strategic Communications company in South Australia.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by John Schumann
Related Links
Australian Labor Party
John Schumann's home page
Photo of John Schumann
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy