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Peter Garrett: From ratbag to suit

By Nick Fredman

In a discussion on the Green Left list of the conflict within Respect between George Galloway and the UK SWP Alan Bradley recalled the conflict in the mid-80s between apparently radical rock star Peter Garret and the Australian SWP within the Nuclear Disarmament Party. Garrett of course now looks set to became a Labor Environment and Arts minister after the November 24 election here. While not claiming the issues and line-up are the same Garret's dubious history raises some general issues of social democracy and a broad left alternative today.

On 25/10/07 3:58 AM, "alanb1000" wrote:
Was it entirely the fault of Garrett et al, or did we do stuff we might have been better off avoiding?
I'm not sure, but Garrett's subsequent evolution suggests that his egoism, opportunism and social conservatism would have been bad news for the NDP whatever the (then Australian) SWP did. Of course that's not how it appeared to most people interested in the NDP at the time, which might be emblematic of the potential problems for the far left in working with a popular reformist figure.

[Switches to old geezer mode]. I can still vividly recall one of the first gigs I went to, must have been before they checked IDs much as I would have been 16. Midnight Oil, Newcastle Workers Club, 1985. The Oils blistering sonic attack was only interrupted by Garret's strident attacks against the Hawke Labor government. At the time the government had announced some initiative to address massive youth unemployment, to which some of the now forgotten pop idols of the day had been signed up to sell, called "Priority One". I can still hear Garrett lacerating this for the bullshit it was, and snarling "You're Priority Zero!!". The assembled working class youth of a union town then well into industrial decline, where as I learned later 2000 people had joined the NDP for the 1984 campaign, roared in approval.

It's not surprising then that someone like me was very disapproving when reading bourgeois media reports around the same time of how a sinister group called the SWP had wrecked the NDP. It was one reason why I was wary when encountering Resistance on campus later in the decade, despite thinking its stands on the Labor-union Accord, Nicaragua, South Africa, the Soviet Union etc made much more sense than the rest of the left. One of the first things I did after finally joining the party in 1990 was check out the Direct Action archives for the SWP side of the split story, and was pretty satisfied that Garrett and Jo Valentine were, quite consciously, wreckers (which doesn't mean the SWP played it perfectly).

On a related note, former well-known Laborite Canberra press gallery hack Mungo MacCullum, now in genteel retirement on the North Coast from where he writes a column for two local weeklies, praised Garrett's trajectory a couple of weeks ago (article not online). This column was answered both by myself and a local Greens candidate. The similarities and differences between these two critiques of Laborite betrayals might be of interest.

A poor excuse for compromising principles

Mungo McCallum (Echo, October 11) defends Garrett's desertion of his principles with a classic tool of the demagogue, sleight of tongue. He takes a cute rhetorical flourish – "The impotent are pure" – and then argues the converse; Garrett can only wield power by sacrificing his beliefs.

Voters are not fools, Mungo. They are angry that Garrett deserted his principles, not because the "real politik" eludes them but because he has squandered the lessons of history. Visionary leaders who stick to their principles are the ones who change the world.

One hundred and fifteen years ago the Australian labour movement was a bunch of shearers in a paddock saying, "We can’t take this any more." It took decades for those idealists to mature into government, but their core principles remained in place until the 1980s.

Mungo's defence of Garrett, as much as Garrett's desertion of principle itself, proves that the Alternative Liberal Party is now a creature of the establishment. The ALP must, according to Mungo, compromise its principles to gain power. If that means selling workers down the drain, uranium to warring states, or our hospitals, schools and water to international corporations, then so be it.

When the Liberal Party self destructs after this election, Mungo and other apparatchiks of the establishment will find themselves facing a far more formidable opposition; a passionate and principled movement that is ready to govern on behalf of the people and the environment that supports us.

The choice for the future is stark. We either vote for the establishment parties that will sacrifice us all on the altar of economic growth or for the emerging parties that recognise we must learn to live better to survive.

Giovanni Ebono
Greens candidate for Richmond

Ratbags effect social change better than suits

If more progressives and greens had heeded Mungo MacCallum’s advice to take the Peter Garrett road and stick to Labor and parliamentary channels (Echo, October 11), then Nightcap National Park would be woodchips, the Gordon and Franklin valleys would be under water, and Howard would not have been forced to reverse 24 years of bipartisan support for the Indonesian brutalisation of East Timor.

If more leftists overseas had stuck to the tame social democratic option then the Vietnam War would have lasted longer, French workers would not have stopped their government's version of WorkChoices in 2005 and indeed Cuba would still be a US brothel and Venezuela a US oil rig.

Labor has sometimes supported progressive change, but the extent it has done so has been determined by how much pressure it feels from independent mass movements and political forces to its left. More importantly, Labor has often co-opted and demoralised progressive forces, as in the Accord that decimated the union movement and Hawke-Keating neo-liberalism that paved the way for Howard.

A recent case in point: the ACTU leadership had initially planned a mild, TV ad-oriented campaign against WorkChoices, until pressured by militants, not least those aligned or allied with Socialist Alliance. The ensuing mass actions have been a key factor in swinging the public against the laws, although Rudd now wants to implement WorkChoices Lite.

MacCallum's point about forest policy in the last election is disingenuous: if Latham had emulated Hawke's clear cut opposition to the Franklin dam (a product of the mass anti-dam campaign), rather than dish up a confused mess at the last minute, he would have won much more support.

Garret will be better than Turnbull, but he could have achieved more continuing on as a ratbag rejecting sordid lesser-evilism. Ratbags have been effective at stopping the excesses of corporate rule, and when the times are right have won majority support and achieved much more than any meek social democrat in a nice suit.

Nick Fredman
Lismore

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