Celebrity politicians – are they worth it?

By Legal Eagle

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…


  1. Posted February 12, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Garrett is actually quite a devout Christian from a very pukka background: the Labor Right is a more congenial place for him than you might expect.

    As someone who is now an employer (in a very small way) and a former union workplace delegate (I have had a varied existence), it is my general observation that employers generally get the unions they deserve. It is vital that workers have access to agents to operate on their behalf: not necessarily, unions as such, but some recourse. The difficulty is the old principal-agent problems: unions, for example, have an interest in making employment law more complex so workers need their agents more.

    But politicians and bureaucrats often have difficulties coping with the issue of the incentives created by government action. Too much thinking in terms of intentions + resources = outcomes.

  2. Peter Patton
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Glenda Jackson was my MP when I lived in London and I thought she was great. The thing that has really shocked me about peter Garrett is just how, well, ordinary he is upstairs. And how boring. I say dump him quick.

  3. Peter Patton
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink


    Indeed, Garrett grew up on the Upper North Shore, attended the elite Anglican private school Barker College, and sent his 3 daughters to Australia’s most upper-class boarding schools for the daughters of the squattocracy

  4. Peter Patton
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    That school of course being Frensham

  5. sdfc
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Legal Eagle

    I think you over-estimate the government. I reckon the over-arching desire was to throw money at the economy and show off their green credentials all at the same time. I don’t think much additional thought went into it.

  6. Posted February 12, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    LE in the post said “I also think there are far too many lawyers in Parliament.”

    I’ll say this for the Chinese, most of the bigwigs are engineers. (And btw: from recent comments around the traps from SL/LE, Confucian they ain’t, but legalist).

    Actually, Garrett is no more disappointing to me than the entire government, apart from a few in important-but-low-profile departments. Maybe the more newsworthy the portfolio, the less the minister is able to be driven by evidence and logic, and the less likely a good policy outcome.

    I’ll also note that politicians claim to be getting the “balance” correct when the “left” and “right” are unhappy. But here, the catallaxians and LPers are both critical for exactly the same reasons. (Perhaps because both the major parties don’t have much product differentiation, as far as general policy directions in most domains are concerned).

  7. Posted February 12, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Right, internet access has been restored… and I can now comment 🙂

    About the only thing I’ve got to add is that perhaps people who have a talent for sounding off from the sidelines should use their ‘celebrity clout’ to further a smaller party’s fortunes. I remember Garrett once stood for the ‘Nuclear Disarmament Party’ and came damn close to winning a senate quota on his own.

    I do realise that he is actually pretty conservative on some issues, but it does strike me that being in the ALP has turned him into an ideological pretzel, and, well, the process hasn’t worked well.

  8. Marks
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    I guess it is a bit disappointing if a celebrity does not shine.

    However, what is the compelling case that PG fell short as a minister?

    What is it that someone says he should have done that would have prevented the deaths?

    Even if there had been a government appointed inspector for each job, would all of the deaths have been avoided?

    Would appointment of a government inspector for each job have been remotely feasible?

    What else should he have done that he did not do, and therefore failed some test of ministerial responsibility?

    The responsibility for workplace health and safety resides with the States, As does most building registration type issues.

    How is it that apparently the States did not resource the inspections within their jurisdictions?

    Did they not know what was going on?

    If they, who had the primary responsibility did know, why did they not do something about it?

    Telling someone whose primary responsibility it was not ((Garrett) is not discharging their own responsibility.

    Sounds to me like I hear the sounds of State Ministers, dodgy contractors, political opposition and lazy media dumping on someone whose responsibility it was not.

    The problem with the present hoo-ha is that it takes the spotlight off the dodgy contractors and the State Governments who have the primary responsibility.

    By taking the spotlight off those who are responsible and empowered to act, we are not serving the cause of improving workplace safety one bit.

  9. Labor Outsider
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    “Also, it’s a problem when people who propose a scheme are idealistic, and do not see the possibilities of how someone less scrupulous could rort the system (witness, for example, the European ETS, which is massively corrupt). In that regard, I’ve never had a problem…I’ve always had a fairly cynical view of human nature, and law has just enhanced it.”

    As a broadly left of centre person I’m obviously not opposed to government involvement in the economy. But too many progressives fail to take incentives into account when advocating and developing public policies or regulatory instruments and are thus surprised when government actions have unintended consequences.

    Anybody involved in public policy making should have at least some knowledge of economic theory and public choice theory in particular. It would familiarise them with concepts such as principle-agent problems, information asymmetry, regulatory arbitrage, and regulatory capture, which are all useful for understanding why, once a “need” is identified, having it successfully addressed by government is much more complicated and fraught than it seems.

  10. JC
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Or perhaps the person running the policy is a complete incompetent LO as shown in almsot everything he’s touched.

  11. Posted February 13, 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    The lead singer of The Dandy Warhols once refused to comment on politics when he was aguest on The Glass House. He said: those people make decisions which effect the lives of millions of people. I make decisions that affect maybe 10 people and that’s way over my head. 🙂

    He was obviously recruited to make the ALP look warm n’ fuzzy again. A little like putting a lizard in a Santa suit.

    Garrett’s just totally useless. He’s caved on important environmental matters and then he puts this ridiculous scheme into effect. He’s a loser and should go.

    I don’t think he chose the ALP over the Greens to make a difference. I’m sure that’s what he told himself. That’s what they all tell themselves. He chose the ALP because he’s ambitious. If he had virtues he would’ve gone with the Greens because their policies are in line with his principles.

    I bet he’s regretting that.

  12. Peter Patton
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    LO: Would I be verballing you if I rephrased your position as ‘too many progressives have little/no training in economics’? 😉

  13. Marks
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    LE @ 11

    Without too much consideration (which is risky I know), the States, when confronted with the increased workloade could have done a number of things fairly smartly and with relatively little cost to them.

    1) Ask the Feds for money for supervisors. Given that the whole idea was to keep people employed, such employment would have been in line with the stimulus aims. Question therefore, did they, who were supposed to be responsible and therefore be the people who could best formulate a request for resources from the Feds do so?

    2) Loudly announce tightening of workplace protection laws and enact them to scare off all but the most evil of the don’t care contractors.

    3) Send out very stark warnings in info packs to contractors registering for accreditation.

    4) Make any prosecutions very very public.

    Maybe that would not have stopped all deaths, but even if one were prevented, it would have been worth it.

    The point being, that these were very simple steps – a bit like the road safety campaigns we regularly see – and entirely within the purview and resources of the States.

    In the bigger picture, this was a major project with many things being done for the first time on that scale.

    When things go wrong, the first instinct of finding someone, anyone, to blame must be resisted in favour of finding the root causes, then determining what remedial action is required (people are still installing insulation and possibly at risk while we all are dancing round PG shouting ‘burn him burn him’) before allocating blame.

    At the moment, nobody is really questioning the states’ role or the installers with anything like the ferocity with which PG is being hunted.

  14. Peter Patton
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I think Adrien is closest to the money on Garrett’s choice of Labor over The Greens being a product of Garrett’s ‘ambition’ but perhaps is a little too critical in attributing that choice to a want of ‘virtue’.

    In fact, I would say, contrart to Adrien, that Garrett eschewed The Greens precisely because The Greens DO lack virtue considerably when it comes to the social and economic values Garrett holds.

    Remember, The Greens are without question a watermelon party, and we have discussed her, Garrett – though an environmentalist – is almost a Rudd clone – the exact opposite of dope-smoking, hard-drinking, egalitarian, atheist socialist!

    1. He is a wowser, who neither drinks, smokes, gambles, drugs, or parties generally; traits that are perfectly at home in a party of Kevin Rudds, Penny Wongs, Nicola Roxons… On this score, his incredible success as lead-singer of an internationally successful political hard-rock band is all the more striking.

    2. He is a rabid pro-life Christian – though one of the many of that ilk who do not think it right for them to use their parliamentary position to force women to follow his lead. Again, see the likes of Rudd and Wong. He attended an elite christian private school like many Laborites, including again Wong. He has educated his daughters as elite Christian private boarding schools, again like many Laborites, including Keating and Rudd. He is/was part of the parliamentary non-partisan prayer/bible-study.group, which includes, inter alia Barnaby Joyce, Chritopher Pyne, and many others. I can’t recall if Bob Brown – also some sort of Christian – is also a member

    3. He was born into a well-off family (though I don’t know how well off), whose net wealth on entering parliament was about $60 million, if I remember correctly; again about the same as the Rudd’s family fortune. And Garrett built his fortune by savvy entrepreneurial skill, not by inheritance. He is known to have various – perfectly legal – strategic investments that are also tax-clever. Frensham’s boarding fees are about $35,000 per year. Garrett has 3 daughters; you do the Math! 😉

    4. When you think about all of Midnight Oil’s songs, they were more nationalist than socialist. They were mainly concerned with an imagined overly-meddlesome US in Australian affairs, against foreign nuclear powers exploiting Australia’s mineral resources for their own nefarious advantage, as well as advocating for Australia’s most unjustly treated and oppressed citizens – the Aborigines to be given an equal seat at the table.

    All in all, Garrett could well have joined a Liberal Party that was more AGW-inflected. Mind you, given the reality of the Party he did join, the Libs would not have to use too strong a green dye to see Garrett as a natural member. And in many respects, Garrett would probably find a Tony Abbott Liberal Party a bit too liberal, louche and party-animalish for his style 😉

  15. Stanley
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I am very disappointed in Rudd’s performance as PM. I was reluctant to vote for him at the last election but gave him the benefit of the doubt. I think that Chris Evans or Kim Beazley would have been far more capable as PM’s than Rudd. If the ALP had one of these gentlemen as their leader I would vote for them but I am leaning towards Abbott at the moment as at least I know what he stands for and his direction is clear. I also like his re-forestation policy to plant 40 million trees.

  16. Marks
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    LE @ 17


    Actually you are a genius political strategist.

    For the Feds and the three Labor States needing a boost at the moment (SA with writs to be issued in a week, Tasmania going, and NSW on life support), a grand announcement of a plan to really solve that problem would be a circuit breaker in many ways.

    If linked to the present problem, it would provide some evidence of moving on the root causes of that problem.

    It would also provide evidence of moving on the State – Fed blame game which has most of us grinding our teeth in frustration.

    With NSW, SA and Tas on board an’ a little help from Anna the conversation with the Feds could be loud and productive enough to drown out the present show trial, as well as do something to prevent a recurrence.

    It would provide plenty of noise to crowd out the existing charivari.

    Of course, if the Henry Report has something on the Fed/State financing in it, then release of that part of the report might be simple step 1.

    Mind you, the politicians might be so terminally addicted to their infighting, that they squib this opportunity since it has nothing to do with doing in political opponents.


  17. Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Peter – I’m afraid I don’t see anything especially virtuous about being a part of the Parliamentary Bible Thumpers Club. In my opinion it has no business existing. Messrs Garrett, Rudd et al are absolutely free to worship whatever they want to but not in the government of my country. Keep it out!

    As both Ms Wong and Mr Brown are homosexual I have my doubts that their brand of ethics would be much in alignment with social conservatives.

    His haute background only serves to illustrate the hypocrisy of people such as him. Like so many leafy suburban light-wing radicals he pretends to be what he’s not but harbours, unabashedly, the exact same prejudices and senses of entitlement that he’s supposed to be above. Ask me and he’s exactly like the posers at Melbourne University who hand out Trot bollocks and talk down to anyone who didn’t go to the right school. They all need a shovel in the face. As for his clean lifestyle?

    Well rumour has it he used to be a womanizer. I think potheads are nobler creatures. Altho’ I see a lack of virtue in excessive indulgence I don’t see virtue in its opposite.

    BTW – Nationalism is traditionally the province of the Left in Australia. The Libs tend to be a cheering squad for Empire.

  18. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Don’t you have to ask yourself why, if you’re introducing a scheme like this, that government accreditation isn’t made to depend on several years’ experience in the industry? Surely there were enough insulation installers out there that it wasn’t necessary to create an influx of newbies and fly-by-nighters to the industry?

    The answer is, of course, that it was a make-work scheme before anything else. It had a nice green tinge to it, but ultimately it was designed to bolster the employment market.

    That factor is what has created the main political problems now. Garrett and the government couldn’t stop the scheme while they tightened it up because they’d drawn a whole lot of people in who’d invested time and money and would, understandably, scream if their income stream got shut off. They had an apparently insoluble political problem so they rolled the dice on the safety issue.

    As for Garrett, saying that he joined the ALP simply because of ambition is a little unfair. Let’s not forget that he was feted by Latham and the ALP. He didn’t go grasping for a seat.

    Also, what is wrong with ambition? Ambition is a necessary ingredient for those in public life who want to make an effective contribution.

    Minor parties are havens for the ideologically pure, but they are not vehicles for direct action. It is a fact that if you want to get things done in politics, you have to compromise. Only ideologues treat “compromise” as a dirty word. For the rest of the world, it’s how we get along. It’s how we respect differences of opinion and it’s how we demonstrate our recognition that no-one is always right.

    Compromise within major political parties is a necessary ingredient to achieve change on big issues.

  19. Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink


    You completely misread me. My point is that by Garrett’s understanding of virtue, The Greens are a big Fail. That as far as values and virtue are concerned, Garrett is more naturally at home in Rudd Labor.

  20. Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Admin thingies:

    Having to let people out of the spammer. It dislikes links and long comments; try to keep them to three paragraphs if you can. Also Peter something funny has happened to whatever is supposed to be linked to your name.

  21. Posted February 13, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Peter – Fair point. Just my knee jerk reaction to anyone who declares themselves ‘good’ because religious.
    Garrett hates the Left ever since the Trots crashed his NDP party. The Trots are paid by the CIA to destroy anything like that that looks like it might work. 🙂

  22. Barry
    Posted February 14, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    The fundamental problem with the Labor Party is that the individual MP’s beliefs and opinions don’t matter. The party decides how every MP is to vote and there is no debate or discussion on any topics. If only MP’s knew that they can vote any way they like, as long as it is in harmony with the ‘will of their electorate’. They can be kicked out of the Labor Party but they can’t be kicked out of their seat in parliament as they are elected by the people, not the party. If they wish to vote against the party, Rudd has absolutely no power to stop that as he is their equal in parliament. MP’s need to start listening to their electorate instead of the party spin machine.

  23. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 20, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    LE, if you’re referring to the info in this morning’s papers, I don’t think Garrett got legal advice. He got advice from Minter Ellison’s consulting arm about the roll out of the program. It was management advice.

    In a way, that’s worse because the advice wasn’t just about liability in a worst case scenario; it actually said that dangerous situations were likely to arise.

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  1. By Liking Peter Garrett at Catallaxy Files on February 12, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    […] Eagle has an interesting post on Peter Garrett. I confess that I’ve never really held much brief for celebrity politicians. Of course, I try to […]

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