How Peter Garrett lost the support of the art world
I once encountered Peter Garrett on the way to Coober Pedy.
I was shooting down the Stuart Highway, several hours through a tough, dry, apocalyptic part of central Australia, when mine shafts, mounds and machinery appeared over the horizon. My iPod, running on shuffle, picked the mood perfectly: Blue Sky Mining.
On that day, the Midnight Oil frontman was in the right place at the right time. But since he entered politics, recruited by Mark Latham, Garrett’s timing has been off. Some of his strumbles are well-known: messing up the insulation scheme, or saying in front of Steve Price that Labor would ``change it all’’ if it won power. His responsibilities were first reduced in 2007, when Kevin Rudd handed responsibility for climate change to Penny Wong, a shrinkage later repeated when Greg Combet was asked to fix insulation. Now he’s lost arts too.
Julia Gillard still thinks Garrett has more to offer, handing him the schools portfolio in a clear vote of confidence for his abilities. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh just yet. But she quietly handed responsibility for the arts to Simon Crean, a former Labor leader who will never been mistaken for a rock star.
The decision is a sensible one. In recent weeks, many in the arts community had been loudly agitating for his head. Make no mistake: Garrett’s standing in the sector was badly damaged.
Only a few years ago, those whose lives depended on the arts were feeling confident, quite reasonably too, that having one of their own on their side could only be a good thing. How times change.
Garrett managed to fumble the one caseload where most people would have expected him to thrive the most.
On the eve of Gillard’s reshuffle, his performance was described as a ``huge disappointment’’ by Live Performance Australia, the peak body for the nation’s live entertainment industry whose members include organisations like Opera Australia, Circus Oz, The Australian Ballet, state theatre companies and several rock promoters.
Its president, theatre producer Andrew Kay, had an intruiging insight, telling The Weekend Australian that Garrett’s passion for the arts was also his weakness. ``He’s almost a luvvie,’’ he said. Outspoken art dealer Dennis Saville went harder: ``We had crap with Keating, it was a disaster under Whitlam and now it’s diabolical under this guy.’‘
For a constituency that tends to favour Labor, at least in theory, many found themselves looking back with fond memories of life under John Howard. How did it come to this?
Labor’s cultural reputation began to unravel in May 2008, when Bill Henson became a headline. After police seized works by the renowned photographer from a Sydney gallery, Kevin Rudd described the works as ``absolutely revolting’‘. There were genuine issues to be debated, but many were alarmed by the strength of the Prime Minister’s condemnation. If artists expected Garrett to be more supportive, his response felt weak: ``While artists have a right to challenge and confront audiences,’’ he said, ``they also have a responsibility to operate within the law.’‘
Later, Labor announced funding would be cut to the Australian National Academy of Music, forcing it to close. Garrett later backed down after public pressure from ANAM’s artistic director Brett Dean, high profile violinist Richard Tognetti and others.
But as Saville’s comments show, it was in the world of visual arts that Garrett has truly taken a beating. The government’s resale royalty scheme, which meant most artists would get a cut when their works were sold down the line, was fine in theory. But gallery owners across Australia, from remote arts centres to major city galleries, were furious about the way it was implemented. A few days before it came into force, one respected figure said: ``It’s a catastrophe.’‘
Garrett said gallery owners had been given ample time to prepare. Others disagreed.
Around the same time, another issue threatened to become even more disruptive to those whose lives depended on art. The Cooper review into superannuation recommended that self-managed super funds be barred from owning art. This, according to many gallery owners, artists and collectors, would mean a huge drop in sales.
Garrett was looked upon to show leadership, to stick up for the industry, but he was largely absent from the debate. After several weeks of uncertainty, the government finally announced, after the Coalition promised the same, that it would not accept the recommendation after all.
Maybe he was constrained in cabinet, but Garrett’s voice was not being heard. Just as being an environmental activist didn’t prevent mis-steps in that portfolio, Garrett’s love for the arts did not automatically make him a capable arts minister.
But that’s politics, where real-world experience isn’t enough to make a thoroughly decent, hard-working, deeply considered man like Garrett an effective politician.
Garrett joined Labor because he wanted to make a difference from the inside. The arts seemed like an obvious choice, but perhaps he was just too close to the action. Besides, anyone who has seen rock or pop stars work a crowd _ be it Lady Gaga, Silverchair, U2 or Garrett himself _ knows that sometimes the best place to change the world is from the front of the stage.
Or maybe musicians just don’t have that much clout. Four years ago, at the ARIA awards in Sydney, on the same night that Bono praised Garrett, saying he felt ``a moral core at the heart of that man which is attractive in a time of crisis’‘, Silverchair’s frontman Daniel Johns used spraypaint to write something on the wall of the stage. His message? PG4PM.
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