It’s one of life’s ironies that the word target nestles easily within the surname of Peter Garrett. Ironic because he is clearly vulnerable. With the first parliamentary sitting in an election year, he’s in the headlights of the government. Already he’s had to act the rubber man on nuclear energy, then he’s pinned on his views on US bases in Australia. It’s excruciating to watch, but will it win votes for the government? Unlikely.
For one, Peter Garrett has come to stand for a great deal that many Australians hold dear. He is far more respected and recognised than most, if not all, political leaders in this country. While that doesn’t buy him immunity from public scrutiny, especially given his position now, it does give him credit in the bank of public opinion.
On another level is Peter Garrett’s place on the national grid of change thinking.
Garrett himself is clearly well aware of the contradictions his move into parliament generates. He said as much recently when he opened up about the nuclear bases issue. Moreover, the contradictions thrown up by ideals are in his blood: two of his immediate forebears were members of parliament in New South Wales in the late 19th century and were, on Garrett’s own admission, a bit Tory.
Garrett is no doubt cognisant of the complex position he has put himself in. A radical past and a mainstream present generally don’t mix, particularly when the context has hardly changed and the weight of the status quo still reigns in the halls of power.
And he is no fly-by-nighter. In 25 years with the Oils, as a two-term leader of the Australian Conservation Foundation and as member of Greenpeace’s international board, he has the runs on the board: like a louder version of Don Bradman. Neither is he a political innocent having been well-known as a talker for years on a range of weighty issues.
In one sense, out of all this, he may emerge a tragic figure - a misguided baby boomer going through a mid-life crisis. Perhaps that’s his fate. But on another, deeper level, Garrett stands as an embodiment of a tension that resides in many and is a living case study of the contradictions of our age.
For instance, most thinking Australians now consider the environment a central issue in the future of our country. Whether its water, El Nino, climate change, logging, habitat encroachment, species loss or any number of issues, the reality is that the next environment minister is potentially going to rival the treasurer as the lead cabinet position.
Most Australians also would accept that change, if desired, will come only indirectly from ranting woolly jumpers or rock bands on the fringes. Direct power in Australia pretty much means parliament, big business or the media. Many thinking Australians would like to believe someone like Peter Garrett can succeed and generate real change on important issues, something he could only do in a position of power.
As such, I suspect, many are not keen the attacks levelled at him on the US bases issue. For Brendan Nelson, who has virtually no credibility nor a profile on environmental or nuclear issues to take a shot at Garrett suggests the government thinks it can target the big fella’s famous bald dome and score some easy diversionary points in what was a torrid week for them.
But Garrett is a kind of valve between the sorts of contradictions many thinking Australians struggle with: those of social change and political reality, new thinking and old paradigms, evolution and revolution, how to generate change without losing touch with the very ground from which that issue has emerged. There are those of us who want someone to make those links.
There are those who want Garrett to succeed, not necessarily for his ideals but because of what that says for our system.
Peter Garrett is in a better position than any to make these connections. He hasn’t done it yet, but that doesn’t mean that there are not a lot of voters out there who are prepared to wait and see what he can do. The US bases flip-flop was an uncomfortable moment, but many will likely be prepared to allow his so far short political career to extend a little further with their support.
Cheap politics are always counter-productive, if only because they sully the waters in which the perpetrator himself must also operate. In this case, the government would be well advised to drop the personal ethics line on Garrett and debate the issues.
Play the ball not the man is the definitive approach for Garrett, perhaps more so than any other opposition figure. There’s too many out there who want to see him given a chance to win. Forget the fact his name has a target in it.