25/02/2010 - 00:00

Uncomfortable for Garrett inside the tent

25/02/2010 - 00:00


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Peter Garrett has a lot of work to do to repair his reputation.

AS a rock star, Peter Garrett made himself famous criticising the capricious actions of faceless business and big governments, which lacked any form of accountability.

A scan of the lyrics of Midnight Oil’s most famous songs finds these themes regularly.

The secret men of the CIA, the fat cats of big business, politicians unable to think for themselves, among others.

Now that he’s in a position of power, it must wrench the heart to discover that self-righteousness doesn’t make the job any easier when you get there.

Mr Garrett chose to join Labor rather than the Greens, even though the latter would have seemed more logical for a man of his views. It seemed Labor was more likely to have actual political power. He chose to be inside the tent, making a difference, rather than outside, making a noise.

All credit to him for making such a decision, but he is the one who has to live with it. When you choose to be a decision maker you have to be accountable.

The debacle surrounding the government’s insulation policy requires that some responsibility be taken.

I have some sympathy for Mr Garrett on this one. His lack of experience in dealing with bureaucracy has got him into a lot of trouble, especially with an opposition suddenly on the ascendancy and baying for blood.

Nevertheless, his ideology, not just that of the Labor party, is the root cause of his problems.

First and foremost is environmentalism. The decision was to help retro-fit supposedly energy-hungry housing. It sounds sensible but, in Mr Garrett’s enthusiasm to promote his green credentials, it is clear little thought was put into how effective it was to offer cheap insulation as a fix-all remedy.

Why weren’t householders offered other opportunities to reduce energy usage?

Of course, socialists don’t like offering choice, which is why insulation was chosen, rather than households being offered a rebate on any form of energy saving they could prove they had installed. It is quite odd that this Labor government has done all it could to destroy the solar power installation business, and then offered a windfall to insulation providers.

And what of the benefit to the environment? It is well known that the domestic sector accounts for a fraction of power usage. A few pink batts or foil in the roof makes almost no difference to Australia’s carbon output. This was a bit of showmanship.

Then there is redistribution of wealth. While Mr Garrett was not the architect of the stimulus package, everything about it smacked of socialism dressed up as a caring government seeking to keep the economy on track.

If you read the lyrics of his hit songs, there is much about the downtrodden; those who hope the nasty mining company or sugar refiner will keep paying the bills.

The irony is that the biggest beneficiaries of the stimulus spending – from the cash handouts, first-home owner’s grant and insulation rebate – have been national retail chains, big property developers and shonky businesses. All of these people would have been on Mr Garrett’s hit list before he became a politician.

And, having decried market forces in his previous lifetime, he ought to have at least considered the impact of what his own policy might be. Flooding a market with cash that has to be spent is a market distortion of near-criminal proportions. It has encouraged dubious operators and destroyed legitimate businesses in that sector at the same time.

So having found himself seemingly working for the other side, its time Mr Garrett repaired the situation and, possibly, his own reputation.

Firstly, he needs to find out why his own bureaucrats didn’t foresee the issues that have been raised or ring the alarm bell more loudly when it became clear the government’s policy was causing more harm than good. Did his ‘green’ bureaucrats believe that a wasteful policy was more important than people’s lives in the lead up to Copenhagen?

Secondly, the criminal operators in the industry need to be unmasked and charged. From the accounts I’ve read about the government’s cash splash, it invited actions that were clearly fraudulent. The fact that they resulted in deaths only highlights that there are reasons why people are supposed to do things properly. The government’s policy might have been flawed, but the greedy who took advantage of it deserve to face the full force of the law.

Mr Garrett’s ability to clean up this mess will offer us all the best understanding of whether he has any ability to play more than the role of star recruit.

If he can’t fix it he may again be uttering the words: “Who’s gonna save me?”

We’re watching

From the once-extroverted Mr Garrett to the more staid Stephen Conroy, it has not been a great week for Labor in the federal sphere.

I have heard Mr Conroy speak a couple of times and thought he knew his subject well. With a long pedigree in politics, you’d also think he might have the radar fine-tuned for a bad decision.

But his decision to give free-to-air television a $250 million gift via reduced licencee fees is wrong.

Free-to-air television has a long history of free kicks that can only be reflective of the political power they must wield. The licensing system prevents competition, the restrictions on advertising are regularly flaunted and they have bullied previous governments into giving them a monopoly on the key sporting events the public wants to view.

The TV barons owe us all for the profits that they have been able to earn through the restricted access to the medium.

Instead, they are crying poor because the government has mandated a new broadcast system, which will allow them to show multiple channels to better compete with the likes of Foxtel. It’s outrageous.

And the lame claim about local content is just rubbing our noses in it.

Sure, Australian television is about to face a tsunami of competition from the internet. But media companies with their brands, infrastructure and know-how are actually better placed than most to take advantage of that. The government is building them a $43 billion distribution network that will be far cheaper to use than their current broadcast methods.

The TV stations know this; that is why they already have a significant interest in online businesses.

There is only one reason to cut licence fees – because competition is now allowed in the market they have held a monopoly over for the past 50 years. Such a gesture would be, of course, 50 years too late.



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