Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting Midnight Oil, a band I first loved as a teenager; away from home for the first time and traveling across Australia. The Oils were an incredible band – intense, passionate and with the songs to match. In their heyday, they were surely one of the world’s best.
When I was first in Australia in 1998, the country was seriously considering cutting the apron strings of the commonwealth and becoming a republic. One of the names most commonly being thrown around as president of the new Australia was that of Midnight Oil’s lead singer Peter Garrett. The idea of having an all-Australian rock star as leader of their country probably appealed to a lot of people, especially given his political credentials (at the time he was president of the Australian Conservation Foundation), legal training and his vocal stance on popular causes. Back then, Garrett seemed the perfect figurehead for a brave new Australia.
14 years on and it’s a very different story. Australia is still part of the commonwealth, and Peter Garrett the politician is now viewed in a far harsher light by many of his former supporters.
Garrett called it quits with Midnight Oil in 2002 to pursue a career in politics. Rather than taking the obvious choice of working with the Greens, he joined the far more mainstream Australian Labour party. Environmentalists everywhere initially rejoiced – here at last was someone who would make a difference. However in the the intervening years Garrett’s parliamentary record has been starkly at odds to the impassioned stance he once took on issues like uranium mining and Aboriginal rights.
In his role as Environment Minister, Garrett gave his backing to several projects which had major ecological concerns associated with them; including a pulp paper mill in the Tasmanian forest and a controversial port dredging scheme in Melbourne. He even gave his support to a uranium mine in South Australia, for which he was inevitably labelled by opponents as the ultimate sell-out.
Garrett’s political career seems to be on the wane these days – he was demoted from the Environment portfolio in 2010 over a botched home insulation scheme that was plagued by major safety concerns and resulted in four deaths.
In some ways I think the fate of Garrett the firebrand activist is more of a reflection on the workings of our Western political system than on the man himself. By entering the world of mainstream politics, Garrett was bound to have to compromise many of his ideals in order to toe the party line on certain issues. He wouldn’t have survived in the Labour party had he not been, in his own words, a “team player,” and I’m sure he still feels that he’s of more value working co-operatively within the system than shouting at it from the fringes. What is disturbing is the extent of the compromise and what it says about the effectiveness or otherwise of the political process.
I’d love to read Peter Garrett’s biography, if he ever gets round to writing one – I think it would be an illuminating examination of how politics in a democracy really works.
In any case, Garrett’s political manoeuvrings don’t affect my love for the music of Midnight Oil one bit – after all, Garrett was just one part of that band, and the Oils owed their brilliance at least as much to the songwriting of Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie and to the musical power they had as a group. I’ll always return to classics like 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining; and when I do I’ll always be once again that wide-eyed teenager, traveling across the vast Australian landscape with my faced pressed up to the bus window and those great songs in my head.