The slide and slide of Peter Garrett

February 7, 2009

Two weeks ago, federal environment minister Peter Garrett announced he will give the go ahead to the expansion of an open cut mine that will divert the McArthur River in the Northern Territory six kilometres off course.

The government claims it has taken the possible wiping out of migrant birds and fish that depend on the McArthur into account. But Aboriginal groups who have fought hard to cease the expansion say they have been ignored.

The track record of Xstrata, the company in control of the mine, is far from good.

Since opening the mine in 1993, the company has refused to pay compensation to Aboriginal people and has been accused of denying traditional owners access to sacred sites, according to the Northern Lands Council.

The proposed $110 million expansion was under a cloud in December last year after a federal court ruled that the original approval was granted inappropriately.

The traditional owners and Aboriginal groups who led the legal challenge claimed victory. But Garrett's ministerial decision takes that victory away.

The announcement adds yet another gradient on the sliding slope of Garrett's time in office so far. Bowing down to Xstrata is an exceptional turnaround for the former lead singer of Midnight Oil, a band famous for their protest songs in support of indigenous land rights and self-determination.

Since a swift installment into the safe federal Labor seat of Kingsford-Smith in 2004, Garrett has steadily contradicted the message of the Oil's most famous music.

When Garrett announced his approval for the Gunns pulp mill back in 2007, Greens leader Bob Brown labelled Garrett as "spineless" and said he had "sold out". In doing so, Brown simply said aloud what growing numbers of others were thinking.

Instead of demanding "let's pay the rent, let's give it back", as he sung in "Beds are Burning" and an end to the racist Northern Territory intervention, Garrett offered this for Aboriginal people on May 26: "We should be introducing it [income management] here, in my electorate, in [the Sydney suburb of] La Perouse".

Rather than continuing to oppose the US/Australia military alliance — as Garrett urged in the classic protest song "US Forces" — Garrett backtracked in 2004 saying "I don't believe [US military facility] Pine Gap should be closed."

He also "unreservedly" supported the establishment of a US military spy facility near Geraldton, telling journalists on February 17, 2007: "Of course you change your mind about some things over time."

However, Garrett had telegraphed his political backsliding before he took office. Garrett confirmed the suspicions of many by telling the 7.30 Report on June 10, 2004, he was "ready to come mainstream".

"I've matured my views", he said.

He has justified his conservative politics as "a part of growing up", according to the Herald Sun in 2004.

Garrett was present when the ALP voted to drop its "no new uranium mines" policy at the national conference in 2007. Then shadow environment minister, Garrett did not fight the decision and instead pledged to accept and promote it, wanting to be a "team player", said The Age on April 29, 2007.

Since then, with federal Labor winning government, Garrett has rubber-stamped numerous new and reputedly destructive mines across Australia.

On August 28, Garrett approved expanding the Beverley uranium mine in South Australia's far north-east. The Beverley mine is known for a burst pipe that leaked 62,000 litres of radioactive material in 2002.

Soon after, when the WA Liberal government announced lifting the ban on uranium mining on November 18, Garrett offered no challenge. "We knew that Western Australia had a policy for opening up its uranium mining — that's a decision that the West Australian government has taken", he told the Australian on November 18.

Gunns' Limited, while battling significant public pressure and repeated setbacks trying to build a pulp mill in Tasmania's Tamar Valley, has enjoyed numerous concessions from both the previous Coalition government and now Garrett.

While trying to appear tough on the controversial pulp mill plans, Garrett has followed the same environmental approval procedure that was arranged by Malcolm Turnbull when he was environment minister in 2007.

Turnbull, for his part, was accused of "doing deals" and accepting donations on behalf on the Liberal party from Gunns throughout his term, the October 2, 2007 Australian reported.

Now choosing to ignore massive public disapproval and outrage — an internet poll on January 15 found that 47% of Tasmanians strongly disagree with approving the pulp mill — Garrett has indicated initial construction can start if the company chooses. He has indicated he will give full approval once his "tough conditions" are met.

The "tough conditions", however, are exactly what Gunns offered to abide by in the first place.

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