Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Who’s Going To Save Me?"

The decision by the federal environment minister Peter Garrett to approve a new uranium mine in South Australia may not be a great surprise, but it marks an enormous turning point for Mr. Garrett as an individual. Millions have admired him as a rock star, others have followed him as a very vocal environmental and social justice campaigner, and there is no doubt that many of those people will look at this decision and arrive at the conclusion that Peter Garrett has sold out.

Mr. Garrett insists that the decision has been arrived at after a rigorous process of intense scrutiny and that the mine will operate at world’s best practice, posing no threat to the environment of South Australia. The argument in favour of approving the mine includes the controversial proposition that nuclear energy is environmentally sound on the basis that it produces less greenhouse gas emissions than current electricity generation methods, despite widely held concerns over radioactive waste disposal and the possibility of some of the material finding its way into nuclear weapons at some point.

That may be true from a scientific viewpoint, and the proposed procedures at the Four Mile Mine may well represent world’s best practice. It may be a sound, sensible, rational decision that will provide useful export income for Australia at the same time as being environmentally responsible. But in many ways that is beside the point. Whether you support nuclear energy or not, it seems to be a strange paradox that Peter Garrett is the one to put a rubber stamp on it.

His entire career has been built on a political stance which included a passionate objection to the nuclear industry. The appeal of his band Midnight Oil was in the combination of the raw driving power of the music and the political acuteness of the lyrics. Every song had a statement to make, and many of them expressed the anti nuclear sentiment that later led Mr. Garrett to become the founder of the Nuclear Disarmament Party, as well as the head of the Conservation Foundation. Even after becoming a member of the Labor Party, he repeated his opposition to nuclear power and to uranium mining on several occasions.

So, what has changed? Is it Peter Garrett himself? Does he now see things differently? Has he changed his opinion in the light of new information and the changing circumstances of global warming? Or has he been forced to realize the political reality that the price of a seat at the table of government is to surrender personal principles in favour of toeing the party line? Of course, it is not unusual for a politician to have to put aside personal views in order to reach a party consensus, but in this case it is so diametrically opposed to everything Peter Garret has previously been seen to stand for it makes the head spin.

It’s not just Peter Garrett’s career, both as a rock star and as a politician, that has been built on his anti-nuclear beliefs, but his entire public identity. Where has that Peter Garrett gone? Has he been kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a replicant? Or has he had an epiphany on the road to Damascus and crossed over to the other side because he has genuinely changed his beliefs? Or are the majority of people right when they suspect that Peter Garrett has sold out his own principles for the sake of the power rather than the passion?

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that his own words in the song “Blue Sky Mine” say that “nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground”? And that the same song also includes Peter Garrett screaming at the top of his lungs: “Who’s gonna save me?”

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