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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1353

Senator WATSON (7:29 PM) —When rock singer and greenie activist Peter Garrett announced that he was standing for federal parliament as a candidate for the Australian Labor Party, a lot of people thought it was a fairly good joke, apart from the local branch people of the ALP who had another preferred candidate for Kingsford Smith in mind. Peter Garrett bravely took on the safe Labor seat of Kingsford Smith and an interesting new career in politics in 2004. He has since become the enfant terrible of the ALP and, while the new Prime Minister has felt obliged to give Mr Garrett a seat in his new cabinet, he must surely be hoping that Mr Garrett maintains a quiet profile and refrains from issuing forth with the sorts of gaffes he has recently become very well known for. After Mr Garrett’s campaign pledge to ‘just change it all’ when elected to government, we can now live in expectation of more significant and unexpected changes than his policy on plastic bags.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Mr Rudd’s new Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts is not only that the minister appears to have no teeth for his work but that he has become a prima donna for the photographic journalists of Australia. Back in December, it was interesting to note that, while only an irrelevant bystander to the main game at the climate change conference in Bali, Mr Garrett nevertheless managed to secure a constant flow of superficial media coverage throughout that important conference. But, unfortunately, his media opportunities were primarily photo opportunities rather than moments to be seized to pursue major issues of climate change policy for his government. The Prime Minister, along with the newly appointed Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, did the hard yards in Bali and provided the level of serious leadership one might have expected to have come from the cabinet-ranked minister for the environment. Mr Garrett’s presence in Bali was beautifully expressed by Mr Rudd when, just prior to the conference, he was asked on radio what Mr Garrett’s role would be in Bali. His reply was:

When I go to Bali, I’ll be there. Penny Wong as the principal negotiator will be there and Peter Garrett will be attending as well.

‘Attending as well’, indeed—but seemingly mainly for photo opportunities.

Following Mr Garrett being gagged in Bali, it was announced that, even though he is a cabinet minister—and minister for the environment at that—he was not to be allowed to answer climate change questions in the House of Representatives on behalf of the talented Senator Wong. Just in case he didn’t have enough on his plate as Treasurer, Mr Swan was dumped with the additional work of responding to climate change questions ahead of the minister for the environment. What an embarrassment for poor Mr Garrett. In actual fact, I have heard that Mr Garrett is allowed to answer some easy questions instead of Mr Swan nowadays, so maybe the climate change gag at least has been unofficially removed.

You might ask why I have risen to speak about Mr Garrett. I am no fan of rock music, but what really concerned me was his attitude towards my colleague, the former and respected President of the Senate, Paul Calvert. What happened to Paul Calvert? He was left off the invitation list for the first Antarctic flight by the CSIRO Antarctic Division’s Airbus to Wilkins base in January. Not only was Mr Calvert left off the invitation list but, when the great Mr Garrett got down there, he did not even recognise his work. Instead it was a wonderful opportunity for a photo beside that large aeroplane.

I remind the Senate that Paul Calvert was the major mover in this parliament to encourage this new and productive service. While Mr Garrett may have benefited from the work of his predecessors in the previous government, his failure to extend an invitation to Paul Calvert to join the first flight was, I believe, an act of discourtesy. That is why I felt I had to look into what goes on behind the facade of this minister for the environment. But, then again, it may have risked the amount of media attention given to Mr Garrett on that occasion in the Antarctic. Journalists may have even asked Paul Calvert some questions and therefore diverted the glory from Mr Garrett. Better to leave Paul Calvert at home to avoid such problems.

Equally discourteous was Mr Garrett’s refusal to recognise the contribution of his predecessor as environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who was instrumental in getting Bondi Beach nominated for National Heritage listing. Apart from not recognising Mr Turnbull’s presence and contribution towards the Bondi listing, when he was specifically asked by the media whether he would like to make a tribute to Mr Turnbull’s part in the process, Mr Garrett, as discourteous as ever, refused to do so. In a rather more conciliatory mood, Mr Turnbull kindly forgave Mr Garrett’s rudeness by admitting that, ‘Governments don’t often want to give a lot of air time to the opposition.’ Again, it was Mr Garrett’s photo which appeared in the Australian newspaper the following day, bestriding Bondi Beach and accepting all the glory.

In recent weeks, the Australian arts community has been shocked by the announcement that Mr Rudd’s razor gang will slash arts funding. In opposition, Mr Garrett loudly urged for more funding for Australian artists and music. With his background, it is fair enough that he would support his mates in the music industry. Sadly, one of his first actions as the minister for the arts has been to fail to defend the funding to Australian artists and music.

Finally, Mr Garrett was again rolled by Mr Rudd over the decision by the Bureau of Meteorology to abide by cost-cutting measures. After widespread outrage at the announcement of the closure of eight regional weather bureau offices, including the vital office in my home town of Launceston, the Prime Minister hung his minister responsible, Mr Garrett, out to dry and backflipped by saying that the bureau had now been instructed not to close any of the offices. We will monitor the future proceedings with interest and hope that the common courtesy of some recognition from a minister in such a responsible role as Mr Garrett’s will be given, especially to those who pioneered some great initiatives here in Australia. I thank the Senate.