Peter Garrett has vivid memories of his first visit to Berlin in the 1980s as front man of the Australian rock band Midnight Oil.
”Apart from the fact that we were playing in one of the dingiest clubs I’d ever seen in my life, there was this wall and it was so unthinkable to us, that there were Germans on this side and Germans on the other and history had somehow made this happen,” he said.
A couple of decades on, Garrett is dressed in an impeccably cut brown suit, sitting on a sofa in the grand Hotel de Rome on Bebelplatz, marvelling at being able to drive from east to west right over the line of bricks that marks the old path of Berlin Wall. ”This is the new history. It’s quite exhilarating to see how fast things can move.”
Things have moved for Garrett too. The towering, giraffe-thin rocker, recognizable by his bald head, is now Australia’s Minister for the
Environment and the Arts.
And he has a message for Europe: the days of Australia’s environmental unilateralism, which marked the previous conservative government’s decade-long rule, are over. Where global warming sceptic former Prime Minister John Howard refused for years to sign the Kyoto protocol, his successor Kevin Rudd made it his first act. Symbolically at least, it got the new government off to a good start in the eyes of countries like Germany, which along with the rest of Europe has been at the vanguard of fighting climate change.
On Friday, Garrett met with German State Secretary for the Environment, Matthias Machnig to sell his pitch that Australia was now a partner, rather than an obstacle in the battle against global warming. The two countries could learn from each other, he said, in a wide-ranging interview with The Local before the meeting.
He said he was keen to talk to his German counterpart about Australia’s focus on leveraging private investment to help manage land and natural resources and about investing in tropical rainforest conservation as a buffer against greenhouse emissions – a goal to which, he acknowledges, European countries including Germany have already shown a strong commitment.
He also said Australia was pioneering measures to help households combat climate change, such as offering low-interest government loans that allow people to make their houses more environmentally friendly and sending climate change experts to audit people’s homes to see how they can make them greener.
”There are front edge solutions which … some countries have just begun to think about in some local jurisdictions with pilot programmes. We’re about to roll it out,” he said.
In return, Australia has already begun to adopt Germany’s groundbreaking use of ”feed-in tariffs”, which encourage people to install solar panels by allowing them to sell excess power back to the grid at inflated prices.
”I think that along with a number of other European states, the Germans have definitely taken some big steps down the low carbon road,” Garrett said. ”But it has to be said that’s in the context of an economy that is pretty robust and where the longer term emission reductions that are needed to get us onto a stabilization trajectory are still pretty challenging for them here.”
On the touchy, topical subject of biofuels, Garrett showed little surprise about German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s recent reversal on ethanol-blended fuel, essentially dismissing such ”first generation” biofuels as worthwhile but failed initial attempt.
”The second generation biofuels I think will be when we really start to assess seriously what kind of contribution they can make,” he said, referring to fuels made from wood such as those being developed by German firm Choren Industries. ”This is a very early period in our understanding of the relationship between alternative or different energy sources and the role that they play in reducing emissions, so it’s a new field.”
Garrett is an unorthodox politician, not least because of his political baggage. As a musician, he was known for his fierce, uncompromising stances on environmental and left-leaning political issues. But since joining Australia’s centre-left Labor Party in 2004, he has faced persistent claims that he jettisoned his principles in return for the power of a cabinet job.
A poor performance as Shadow Environment Minister during last year’s election campaign resulted in Garrett being stripped of many of the core elements of climate change when his party won government, leaving Garrett with a considerably skinnier portfolio.
Nobody doubts that he has had to temper the anger and urgency that marked his song lyrics in order to become an effective mainstream politician. While his heart is still green, his head has taken on the nuanced grey necessary for making political compromises.
Nowhere was this clearer than his party’s pragmatic – critics say unprincipled – position on charging shoppers for plastic bags. Where German shoppers pay for supermarket bags, Garrett was recently forced to rule out any national levy on bags, fearing it would hit poorer, working families – a key demographic in the Rudd government’s election win last year.
But his past also makes him a rare political commodity – he’s an Arts Minister who has actually been a working artist. His enthusiasm for Berlin as a leading European cultural capital pours out with little prompting. Garrett has been looking at the Berlin Biennial festival over the past couple of days to get a sense of “what’s hot and what’s not.”
”There’s a great spirit of artistic inquiry and expression in this town. It’s got a staggeringly rich history, as a political and cultural hub for this continent,” he said.
”It’s attracted artists and thinkers, poets and mystics and revolutionaries for hundreds of years. Different places become real centres of artistic expression and movement depending on what’s happening in the history of that area and the fact is that Europe is going through this period of transformation,” he said, referring to the European Union’s ongoing integration.
This fit well with the multilateral approach the new Australian government wants to champion, he said.
”Whatever occasional frustrations people may express about the (European Union’s) slowness … and the layers of meetings of organizations and bodies, the fact is … it’s bringing this idea that we’re in it together to bear from a continent where the history has been anything but that.”