I confess that I’ve never really held much brief for celebrity politicians. Of course, I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, so I try to cast my prejudice aside. But I can’t help thinking that if you’re a performer or an actor or a musician, you might not have had much experience actually running things. You don’t have to implement your ideas or make them work.
Another thing about celebrity politicians is that you inevitably end up feeling very disappointed in them. It’s easy to admire someone when they just have to put in a good performance, and they don’t have to make difficult decisions or let you down. However, the nature of being a politician is that you have to compromise, and make hard decisions which may end up hurting people in one way or another. You can’t be popular with everyone in politics.
So I feel disappointed about Peter Garrett (Labor Environment Minister and former lead singer of Midnight Oil, for non-Aussie readers). For one thing, I liked his music. But it’s hard to listen to it now without thinking of his political persona, and of his various shortcomings and the ways in which I believe he has betrayed his own ideals.
Garrett always seemed to me to be an idealist. For this reason I was surprised when he chose to go with Labor rather than the Greens. Presumably he chose Labor because he felt that he was more likely to get into power and “make a difference” with a major party, but because Labor is the major party with a more left wing approach, he thought he wouldn’t have to betray his ideals too much. It’s easier to remain idealistic if one is associated with a minor party, I suspect. If you’re with a major party, you have to make all kinds of compromises because you actually have to implement your ideals (or be ready to implement them if you are in Opposition). And the major parties are broad churches, such that the ideals of the party have quite a bit of latitude, and can change rapidly. Since Malcolm Turnbull was ousted as leader of the Opposition, and Tony Abbott took his place, the approach of the Liberal party has changed massively, for example.
Despite the fact that it has been reported in The Australian that Garrett has resisted calls for his resignation, I can’t help thinking that his days are numbered. After all, when both Catallaxy and Larvatus Prodeo run posts which canvass the possibility of his resignation, one would have to say that there was a consensus that Garrett is in trouble.
Garrett’s trouble began in February last year when the government said that it would fund the insulation of 2.7 million homes as part of its A$42 billion stimulus package. The idea was that this would help Australians use less energy because their houses would be better insulated, and thus our impact on the environment would be lessened. The idea sounds like a good one in principle. After all, surely it’s a good thing if we are all more efficient in our energy use? But the government seems to have failed to think properly about the incentives that such a scheme would set up. Once they set up a slush fund of money available for roof insulators, it’s natural that people would want to move into the business of roof insulation, and if the situation was not carefully managed, it’s also natural that you’d get inexperienced operators, or operators who wanted to cut corners to make a quick buck. As I said over at Catallaxy, I think the government were probably thinking of grand gestures that would make them look good rather than practicalities. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.
In any case, The Australian reports:
Peter Garrett has admitted he was warned repeatedly by government and industry bodies that flaws in his roof insulation program risked causing fatalities as the opposition demanded Kevin Rudd sack him for “maladministration” that led to deaths.
Fighting to save his career, the Environment Minister told parliament the warnings went back to February last year, when his department was told of potential risks, and to March when he was warned directly. He said he had responded promptly and argued it was not his bungling that was to blame for four deaths and serious safety risks to householders but the “slack” behaviour of installers.
Tony Abbott said the program was always going to attract “shonks” and seized on at least 13 safety warnings to the government as he tried to censure the Prime Minister for failing to sack Mr Garrett. The attack came amid accusations federal officials had warned their state counterparts in April of a “10 per cent failure rate” for the program as they rushed to roll out the $2.45 billion scheme.
A young installer died in Cairns just last week after using metal staples which were outlawed last year. Unsurprisingly, the unions are unimpressed, and Dean Mighell of the ETU has attacked the government for failing to consult it properly over safety standards and procedures. As Christian Kerr said in The Australian:
Workplace safety is one of the most fundamental concerns of the union movement. It is one of the most fundamental reasons why it — and its political wing, the Labor Party — exist.
But yesterday Garrett said installers had to take some of the blame for deaths linked with his bungled insulation scheme.
“It’s not a government rebate that has led to these terrible fatalities,” he told the ABC.
“It’s people actually breaching the guidelines as installers, not properly following the rules and regulations that we’ve put in place, and exposing their employees, in some cases, to a terrible risk and death.
“Now they have a responsibility as well.”
The union movement reacted furiously.
“Unions have consistently raised concerns about safety and training standards in the program and have complained directly to the federal government,” ACTU leader Sharan Burrow said in a statement yesterday.
“The ACTU called for a halt to the program in November 2009 after three tragic deaths, but withdrew our call following assurances that new procedures would protect workers. The electrocution of another young worker clearly shows these new procedures were not sufficient.”
One of the reasons I support unions is because, if they are working as they ought, they keep employers on the straight and narrow with respect to worker safety. As a young lawyer, I was once involved in the defence of some truly hideous workplace safety claims. I can’t tell you how horrendous the injuries to the poor workers were. One of the roles of a decent lawyer is (or should be) to tell the client when they’ve done wrong. I’m pleased to say that we advised our client that their safety procedures were seriously deficient and that they would have to face the legal consequences. I also hope that we put a rocket up the client so that they never let anything like that happen again. They might not have cared about their workers but they did care about their bottom line. (I still mentally spit whenever I see this former client’s name somewhere, by the way, even though it was a long time ago now. If there’s something I hate, it’s the attitude that workers’ lives are expendable in the pursuit of profit.)
When I see Garrett dodging and weaving about the deaths of those young workers, I feel deeply, deeply disappointed. What happened to his idealism? And it makes me think that, really, perhaps my doubts about celebrity politicians are merited. I wonder if they have the practical experience that is needed for the job.
(As an aside, lest you think I’m unfairly picking on celebrities, I also think there are far too many lawyers in Parliament. Of course it’s natural that lawyers have a passion with respect to making laws, but there’s a tendency among some lawyers to think that things can just be fixed by passing a law about it…grrr. In addition, I think it’s unhealthy for one particular profession to be disproportionately represented in Parliament.)
Update: LegalConsulting advice was given to Garrett outlining the safety risks of the insulation scheme.
Update 2: Have a read of Jim Belshaw’s post on the ramifications of the cancellation of the scheme for legitimate operators…