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Peter Garrett – Hanging Up The Suit And Tie

By Dan Hutton on August 30, 2013 in People

Photo: Andrew Goldie

Photo: Andrew Goldie

It’s been eight years since you last sat down with The Beast; how have you been?
I’ve been good and time has gone faster than one of those people trying to win the 100 metres in the Olympics.

It certainly has. Are you glad that your political career is coming to an end?
Look, I leave politics and the Parliament with no regrets but also a sense of it being a big part of my life and something which I’ll look back on mostly fondly – not always fondly, but mostly fondly.

It must be a relief to not have to worry about campaigning for the upcoming election?
I’ll still be out there and I will support the local candidate here, Matt Thistlethwaite, and I’ll be out and about giving people a hand. The issues that will be in front of us in the election are issues that mean a lot to me and I think they’re important for Australians and they’re things that I will probably be involved in once I’ve stepped outside of formal politics as well, but by the same token I won’t always have the suit and tie on.

Had you contested your seat again do you think you would have taken it out easily?
I think I would have held the seat. We’ve doing quite a lot of work over the last couple of months and the feedback on the street has been very positive. I think that at the end of the day the stuff that doesn’t always get written about, but I think is ultimately the stuff that is what politics is about, I felt we’d really delivered on, whether that was making sure we had a fair education funding system, national disability insurance scheme for the first time or getting the NBN in place. There are so many positive things that the governments that I was a part of have done and I was quite happy to go out and argue strongly that if you want to get those things done then you need a Labor government.

When you look back on your time in the Labor Party, what would you hope to be your legacy?
Look, I think in the environment and arts portfolio I’m extremely proud of the fact that I brought through the resale royalties scheme for visual artists so that painters and visual artists would actually get some decent return on their work, especially Aboriginal artists, over time. I was behind the huge investment in the National Reserve System, the first ever e waste recycling system, taking the Japanese to court over whaling and starting to make decisions for the environment that stood the test of time, whether it was the decision to save the Mary Valley and stop the Traveston Dam in Queensland or list the Kimberley for World Heritage and National Heritage listings. In education I’m proud of the work we did on bullying in schools, the National Safe Schools Framework; having decent high level national standards for teachers and principals basically for the first time ever as well as a national curriculum that we brought in for the first time as well. And finally, and obviously something that really took up a lot of my time over the last two years, implementing a fair education funding system on the back of that word ‘Gonski’, meaning that kids will actually get supported in their schools on the basis of need for the first time ever in our nation’s history. I think they’re the things that were really worthwhile, will stick and will make the country a better place.

What would you say was your biggest achievement thus far?
I’ll let others make the call on that. I’m not here to blow my own trumpet.

Isn’t that what politicians are meant to do in the lead up to elections?
Others can make the call on that but I think if you go and have a look behind the wall of noise that we’ve got to contend with on a daily basis in politics and just see the sorts of things that have been done then people can make their call on it.

Do you think Matt Thistlethwaite will be able to retain the seat for Labor or do you think the Liberals’ Dr Michael Feneley will give him a good run for his money?
I think it’s going to be a tough political contest right around the country and that includes Kingsford Smith. If you’re thinking about Dr Feneley, you’ve got to think about Mr Abbott; that’s really the equation there. I think Matt will be very competitive but it will be a hard campaign, there’s no question.

What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from your time in politics?
I think probably the most valuable lesson I learnt is that the only thing that stops us from being a nation that can really flourish to the ambitions of its people is cynicism and apathy. Politics isn’t perfect, it never will be and it doesn’t necessarily always deliver what people expect on day one, but at the end of the day our system is one of the best systems around, if not the best. It can be improved, it should be improved over time but people shouldn’t allow cynicism, particularly media cynicism, to overturn their sense of what’s possible, whether it’s at a local, state or national level.

Do you have any regrets at all from your political career?
Not any I can put my finger on right now. I’ll get a chance to think about it and reflect on it once the election’s done. I think that it’s an incredible privilege to serve at this level. It’s an incredible opportunity to be a cabinet minister for two terms in a government and to go in and to argue to the razor gang and to the cabinet that what we need to do is make sure that there’s significant extra investment support for kids in our schools that’s going to last them for decades to come. I look back on that and I think it’s just a remarkable moment in my life, and something that I know every time I go past a school and look at the kids going to the school I’ll think about that.

Will you still be aligned with the Labor Party in the future or will you be a free political spirit?
I think the funny thing about it is that people just had this idea that I’d jump from the stage and that parliament and the cabinet and the caucus room would become the next stage, whereas in actual fact the two things are very different. The things that you want to achieve in politics you achieve as a team player and that’s how it works, that’s how it gets the job done and I was certainly most focused on making sure that people understood that it’s not an ego trip. It’s about working with others and I believe that. I believe that in all spheres of life, not just in politics. So of course I will still be associated with Labor and Labor values.

Is the environment still your main passion?
It’s certainly one of them. I think that we’ve got such a mighty gift in this country. I mean look at where we’re sitting now on this coastline in the city of Sydney. Sydney’s surrounded by bushland for the most part – the world heritage listed Blue Mountains, fantastic areas of eucalypt forest, the Royal National Park. Look at the coastline we have. And the quality of life that we enjoy from the environment is crucial, but I think added to that is the question about how we’re going to really make sure that we don’t warm this planet up too much, and make it difficult, dangerous and unpredictable. That will be a big issue for me. I also want to more work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who I’ve got a good, close association with, which I’ve had for many years since the time I was in the Oils.

Do you still surf?
I haven’t had a chance for the last couple of years. I’ve just been flat chat.

Will you be getting the long board back out now that you’ve hung up your political boots?
It’s only going to be the mal and it will only be when it’s very gentle.

You mentioned climate change before; in your opinion what is it still “the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation”?
Yes, unquestionably.

Do you think that maybe Kevin Rudd only saw it as a good vote grabber but doesn’t really believe in it?
No, I don’t doubt the conviction of people in the government, including the prime minister and others, on climate change. There’s no question it’s not an easy issue to resolve overnight; we all know that. But it will be important for us to continue on that journey. It’s a journey that we can’t fall away from.

Do you think that Kevin Rudd can win the upcoming election?

Do you want to see him win?
Yes, of course. I strongly support the Government and I’ve always supported the leader of the day and I think that’s a responsible place for someone who has those values to be. I think the country would go backwards rapidly under an Abbott government. I’ve seen Mr Abbott close up and I didn’t like what I saw.

Why did you decide that you couldn’t continue as a Labor politician under Kevin Rudd’s leadership?
I made my comments clear at the time. I was asked the question whether or not I would I continue to serve. I answered that question truthfully and when the opportunity arose I acted on the decision that I’d made. I’m not going to go into the entrails of it publicly. I don’t think that’s appropriate at this time but I was just being true to my word.

Are you still glad you made that decision?

Had Julia Gillard still been leader you would have continued on as a Labor cabinet member?

Do you think Ms Gillard was treated unfairly during her tenure as PM?

Do you think Kevin Rudd was treated unfairly during his first spell as PM?
That’s more difficult to say. I don’t know who it was, whether it was Clinton or Blair or whoever, that said modern politics for leaders is a case of continually losing skin until you’ve got none left. I think that’s not a bad description of it. Life’s not fair and politics is a tough game.

Do you think a prime minister of Australia has ever been treated particularly fairly?
Not necessarily. You’re treated better in hindsight than they are at the time because the demands of the leadership, particularly with a 24/7 media cycle, are just over the top. I think one thing was clear to me during the period of time when Julia was prime minister and that is that there were sections of the media, and in some instances it was reflected in the way in which punters were talking, which were really hostile to her as a person without looking at what she was doing. At the end of the day you actually don’t have to like your leaders personally, you don’t have to necessarily like the way that they look, but you’ve got to look at what it is they’re doing and this is what the business is about. It’s looking at what people have done and I think people looked far too much at this figure of Julia Gillard as a woman prime minister and they looked much less at what it was that she and her team were actually doing.

Do you think the public opinion will change over time?
Yes, I think the Gillard Government era will be judged more kindly by history over time. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

Would you rather see as leader of the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull?
Well, philosophically I’d prefer to see Turnbull but whether his colleagues are prepared to give him the thumbs up is another matter.

What about from an election point of view, given that you obviously want the Labor Party to win?
Don’t forget, Malcolm was one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in political history in recent times.

Things have changed a lot since then though…
The interesting thing about politics is to watch the swings of public mood. Someone’s a king one day and a clown the next, a prince one day and a pauper the next.

What’s your relationship with Malcolm like, given that you guys have been leading bordering electorates?
Obviously we’re in different parties but look, we’ve always personally got on reasonably well and I think the relationship is a pretty constructive one.

You and Malcolm must agree on a few issues?
Malcolm gets away with blue murder. I mean all he’s got to do is go on ‘Q&A’ and tell the audience what they want to hear and they think that he’s the next Messiah. Well it’s not quite like that. You’ve got to look at the policies of the Liberal Party and Malcolm’s a member of the Liberal Party and it’s those policies to which he is now bound. That includes their policies around carbon and the price on carbon. Look at the unanimity of Abbott’s position on climate change. He didn’t believe it in the first place and they’re not going to do anything about it in the second place. Malcolm’s still a member of that party.

Under Labor there have been dozens of ministerial portfolio changes over the years; would the population be better served by ministerial stability or are ministers just portfolio figureheads with no real influence?
I think that the cabinet for most of its time was pretty consistent and there’s always changeover. They’re highly demanding jobs. I mean I was in cabinet for nearly six years and I think that it’s true that the turnover of ministers generally in our political system happens maybe more quickly than people would like. But I don’t think that’s a fault of the system. It’s just the way things are.

Do you reckon the election cycle is too short?
Yes, there’s no question about it. One of the great tragedies of recent politics is that when Simon Crean was Labor leader he put it to John Howard, who was then prime minister, to reach bipartisan agreement on 4 year terms. In fact, in my view, they should more likely be 5 year terms, but certainly 4 year terms, and we couldn’t reach that agreement because Howard wouldn’t agree to it. Prime ministers generally want to take that option of calling an election and not losing it, but I can tell you now, having served in two governments, it is too short. It doesn’t matter how interested you are in an issue, it doesn’t matter how much work you’ve done, it doesn’t matter how smart your advisers are, it still takes you a bit of time to wrap your head around something like a portfolio. It’s got to be done properly and if you’re always in campaign mode then you end up getting driven way too much by the polls and you don’t get the long term stuff bedded down in the way you’d like to. I’m not the first person to say this and I’m sure I’m not I won’t be the last, but we ought to do something about it.

Has Australian politics become too negative?
In my view Australia has become too negative and Australians have become too negative. I mean it’s okay for people to come across from England and they’re used to queuing up for fish and chips and whinging because the weather’s no good, but it’s a beautiful sunny day here and we’ve got one of the healthiest and best economies in the world. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some people who are finding it difficult and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t always things that you can do to improve the country, but by any measure ours is an extraordinarily successful democracy, it’s peaceful and it’s relatively prosperous. It provides incredible opportunities for people if they’re prepared to do the work and they’ve got the ambition and the dreams and the drive and I just shake my head sometimes when I hear all the negative stuff that comes out. This is an incredibly fantastic place to live.

Would you rather be remembered as Peter Garrett the politician or Peter Garrett the front man of Midnight Oil?
I don’t even spend a second thinking about how I will be remembered and it’s not in my mind to contemplate. I’ve still got plenty of things to do in my life and at the end of the day I just bring myself to the roles that I’m in or the jobs that I’ve got.

Can we expect a comeback tour from Midnight Oil?
Well that is the question that everybody’s asking and the answer is pretty straightforward – if the boys all decide at a certain period of time they want to go out and play then maybe they will but that’s a way off, if at all.

Did you buy the album from your former band mates’ surf rock band, The Break?
No, luckily someone gave it to me.

Are you a fan?
Well, they’re having fun, let’s just put it that way.

Are you still close with the boys from the band?
Yeah, we’re in touch every now and then.

Do they give you grief about political issues?
Occasionally they’ve transgressed. Musicians are very good at speaking without necessarily thinking it all through.

Is your family happy that you’ve given up the political gig or do they fear you’ll go back into music and unleash your dance moves again?
I think they’re reasonably happy they’re going to see a bit more of me, but maybe once they’ve seen a bit more of me they might change their mind.

Have you still got the dance moves?
You know I have.

What will you be doing with all the extra time you’ve got on your hands?
I think I’ll be dividing it between the things I really want to do and want to work on. I’ll obviously spend more time with family and friends, just connecting with people again after this intense period where time is very much compressed. And I’ll consider working with people and organisations to try and help them with their leadership thinking and their strategic thinking.

Are there any particular environmental issues that you will be getting behind stronger than others?
I’m deeply, deeply concerned about health of the Great Barrier Reef. I’ll be keeping a very keen interest in the way our inland river systems are affected potentially by coal seam gas extraction and other mineral resource extraction because it’s not a dead heart, it’s a living centre of the nation and the ecosystems of Australia are intimately connected. You look at what happens on the upper ranges of the Cooper basin, it affects what happens in Lake Eyre; you look at what happens on the Fitzroy River in north west Kimberley and it comes down and affects places like Derby and Broome and the coastal ecosystem. You just can’t have low bar care for the environment. You’ve got to make it high bar.

You mentioned that the public shouldn’t trust Tony Abbott yet you refuse to be part of a government led by Kevin Rudd – isn’t there some hypocrisy at play there?
I already made clear what my position would be in relation to this matter and I’ve been true to my word. My support for the government remains.

If you could have your time over again, what would you do differently?
I’d spend a bit more time in the surf.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to the people of Kingsford-Smith and Australia?
To the people of Kingsford Smith, give our area a big hug and enjoy Malabar Headland now that we’ve delivered a new national park in the electorate. To the people of Australia, let’s do our best make sure we leave the country in better shape -environmentally and socially – than we found it.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Peter Garrett?
Let’s just wait and see.