Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The "shocking" fall of Peter Garrett and how it symbolizes the political process

When in Canberra a few months ago, I posted a brief note here about how interesting I found it that former Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett (right) was Australia's minister of culture and the environment.

Garrett, and the Oils (my second-favorite Aussie band, and the one whose music holds up the best) as a whole, have long been known for their activism. Their 1988 single "Beds Are Burning," highlighting White Australia's mistreatment of its Aboriginal peoples, is perhaps the most-famous example. Garrett was elected to Parliament in 2004 and become a minister when the Labor party came to power a few years later. Now Garrett finds himself in significant political hot water, and how the press and public have turned against him is an interesting case study about what the public expects from its leadership.

Part of Garrett's portfolio included supervision over federal energy conservation measures, and that included supporting a home insulation program. As most of us know, proper insulation can lower energy costs by keeping the insulated building either hotter or cooler, as desired. Thousands of Australian homes received insulation in their attics as part of this program -- insulation that was coated in metal.

That insulation has directly resulted in the deaths of four workers, either through electrocution or heat stroke, and has been implicated in about 90 house fires (the metal has in some cases contacted electrical wires, causing short circuits). As word got around about the program's poor safety record, pressure on Garrett steadily increased, with calls for his resignation being heard far and wide. Eventually, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demoted Garrett, stripping him of his energy duties.

This was an interesting case for me. How far up the ladder should someone fall on their sword in such a debacle? Did Garrett know about the safety problems beforehand? Apparently not. Does he have a background as an electrician? No.

A recent experience with the South San Francisco Housing Authority showed me that the public expects its officials (elected or otherwise) to be able to micromanage all the way down the food chain. Sometimes that's quite simply not possible.

Take the example of the SSF HA. Of the board members, two are retired from non-technical backgrounds, two (including myself) are college/university students and two are "resident" commissioners, who live in the authority (not to cast any dispersions, but one has to be low-income to live in the complex, so it's unlikely they have expertise in municipal finance). Those might not be the best backgrounds for the kind of work we do, but I don't consider us unqualified -- we truly are representatives of the general public, regular Joes who are trying to serve the community. For technical matters, including contracting and finance, we have to rely on the expertise of paid staff.

So it is with Garrett as well. He certainly has the background for the "cultural" part of his ministry. But like us has to rely on the experts' opinions on technical matters beyond his background. His consultants with expertise should have known better and warned him of the dangers, and should face discipline. Should Garrett?

I don't have a good answer. In my case, I'd certainly be a better commissioner if I had a background in contracting or even painting (my MPA will hopefully help address at least the former). But one beauty of America (and Australia, for that matter) is that credit is due to concerned individuals who do their best while others sit and complain when things don't go their way.

It happened to us, and it happened to Garrett.

1 comment:

Polly Wally said...

It certainly is an interesting situation. It's hard to see Garrett going through all of this when he has done so much good for this country in the past.