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Peter Garrett | Rocker Activist
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Peter Garrett | Rocker Activist
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Peter Garrett | Rocker Activist
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Conversations
6 May 2022

Peter Garrett | Rocker Activist

Interview by Myke Bartlett

It would be easy to think you know who Peter Garrett is. As frontman of Midnight Oil, he is sometimes painted as a cartoonish firebrand. A loudmouth rocker singing hit songs about issues that nobody else had put to music — Aboriginal land rights, our country’s uneasy relationship with the US military, and asbestosis. In our social media age when everything is political — when the latest superhero film is vetted for its gender or racial politics — it can be hard to remember how radical it was for a mainstream rocker like Peter to be so openly political. No wonder the media were so quick to caricature.

We know now how earnest Peter’s political convictions were. While other rockers might be happy to throw stones at the windows of government, Peter was one of the very few — possibly the only — to go to work inside the building. He served two terms as part of the Rudd Labor government, where he worked hard to push forward meaningful action on climate change. Action that has been consistently sabotaged by successive Liberal governments.

When we talk, it surprises me that Peter seems hesitant to link his work as an artist to his political agenda. The new album Resist feels like a direct call to action, with a burning focus on climate change in lead single Rising Seas. But when I ask him about the intended impact of the album, he says he doesn’t think about that. The Oils are not a propaganda machine. It’s for others to take meaning from the songs. He just says what is true. But I want to know more about how he sees his art and politics intersect. Can rock n’ roll really change the world?

This story originally ran in issue #69 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

MYKE BARTLETT: So the new album’s out today. The tour’s about to begin. Is this the exciting part? Do you enjoy this part of the process?

PETER GARRETT: It’s always exciting when one’s out – to the extent that you still get the frisson when you’ve had lots of records out. But particularly in this case because it was recorded a couple of years ago. Because of COVID we’ve had to bite our lip and hold our tongue until today. We wouldn’t have wanted to wait much longer. With touring, we used to essentially be a do-it-yourself outfit, where we were pretty hands-on with many aspects of our career. I think our management would still say we are very hands-on! We still know what we want and we’re prepared to dig in and make sure that it happens the way that we want it to, but we’ve now got very skillful people who work with us and for us. So right now, it’s trying to pretend that we don’t know anything and look at it all as though we’re starting out fresh, which is hard to do but I think it’s a worthwhile exercise. To discover whether you’re missing something in a way, whether that’s the album or the shows. We’re asking: what do we want to do when we’re up there? In one way, it’s straightforward: we just want to play the songs. If you let the Oils loose on a stage, that’s what we’ll do, we’ll play.

Are you still surprised when you find new ways to do things at this point of your musical career?

I’m not sure that it’s new ways to do it. I think it’s just learning to let go of the things that don’t necessarily help. And that’s partly about being playful and as teenage-like as you can be at this stage. We’re obviously children of the ’50s and ’60s, and we’re in our sixties. A lot of our peers are retiring, but we’re still playing music. And people are looking on slightly askance.

You’re not just playing old music, you’re not just doing a reunion tour. You are writing new music.

Right, we’ve got new music as well. The thing you’ve got to learn and then forget, in a way, is not to get too fixated on minor details or project too far into the future. Part of throwing people onto the stage and playing a bunch of songs, in front of an audience, is just to see where it ends up. You don’t want to over-plan any of that. You want some spontaneous combustion. So you’ve just got to find a little ground there, which we’re doing. We’re spending quite a bit of time just making sure the production’s where it needs to be. Particularly the screen projections, which have got the images with some of the themes and messages that accompany the songs. Getting that in its right place so it works as a nice partner to what we’re doing on stage.

I would like to talk a bit about themes and messages. This next issue of Dumbo Feather is about what we’re calling systems change, about how we can bring about rapid, wide-scale environmental repair ideally in the next 10 years. So I’d like to talk about the way that you’ve engaged with environmentalism and the system. When we spoke briefly before you said Midnight Oil are not a propaganda machine. Do you think there’s a tendency for people to see the Oils like that?

I don’t know. Some people might, some people may not. We’re not particularly influenced by how people see us. We’re mindful of it. It’s not as though if someone raises something legitimate to us, say for example, “I went to one of your shows and someone treated me poorly,” we don’t address it. Clearly if it’s a human rights issue or a justice issue or a fairness issue we are there. But in terms of how we’re perceived as a band, and reaching a value judgement about the work, well, we’ve got critics on one hand and fans on the other and everybody else in-between. We know we are deeply serious about both our music and other things that are going on around us. And quite often we’re writing about that. We’re not expecting people to take it on face value, because we’re not trying to persuade them of anything other than the fact that this is how we feel and what we think right now. Whatever you do when you walk out the door is your own business, but we of course hope that it’s making a bit of a difference to you.

So it’s just about you speaking your truth and allowing others to take what they can from that?

Totally.

I do feel that in the ’80s, particularly with things like Live Aid, there was an idealistic streak in rock and roll. A sense that rock and roll could really change the world. Did you feel that idealism?

Not in the way that it was expressed there, although hats off to everybody for having a go, whether it was Bono and Geldof or people down at the local club at a Saturday night. We need idealism in all its shapes and forms, and we need the delivery of change that comes from awakening idealism. But I think, for us, the bigger question lies around an actual focus on something, where you believe that your voice is a part of the soundtrack for change. If we’re then able to, in a very nuts and bolts way, provide some level of assistance, maybe it’s helping people out with money, maybe it’s doing a benefit concert, promoting something through our own media channels, then of course we’ll do that. Lots of performers do that. It’s about speaking to it and acting on it in your own life, as you see fit. I don’t mean seeing it as a great hero project. If you see it like that it’s not going to last the distance. You have to do it in a way that is consistent in your own working life and makes sense to you. In our case, it’s true to what we think Midnight Oil is and what Midnight Oil’s always done. Occasionally, we’re going to hit the wall and fall over and occasionally it’s going to sound very preachy and a bit predictable. Other times it can be audacious and move a needle. There are no set rules around any of this. It’s just getting in there and having a go.

You’re talking about the broader impact of your actions as a band rather than just the music itself or your art itself. But do you feel that art on its own does play a role in changing our systems, or has some duty to change them?

Art does not have a duty to do anything other than be art. Let’s not pretend that the simple creation of work about something will change things. People change. The important part of the equation is that if people are influenced by art and then change, then art can do that. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

I wonder if that is changing slightly, or at least the expectations around artists is changing slightly. It does feel that in our social media age, quite often it’s the political merits of a work that are read first. That what was once subtext is now read as the text. Do you feel there has been a change in that way?

I think you’re right. The step that people often take of simply only analysing the art from that point is extremely limiting. Eventually we’ll end up with very sterile art because art’s not to be put in boxes. I think judgements on the basis of a political reading ultimately are futile if the work itself doesn’t stand up. If the work stands up then yeah, by all means, figure out what it’s about and be shocked or angered or inspired. But don’t pretend that simply because the work is about something that everybody, right now, thinks needs to be spoken about makes it of great importance. People are entitled to do it. It doesn’t make it good art.

I absolutely agree. I find that shift interesting because I think historically there’s been a cringe factor from some rock fans and critics about rockers who open their mouths about politics. U2 are often mocked more for their opinions than their music. Where do you think that comes from? That sense that artists shouldn’t have an opinion or shouldn’t be loading rock music with political content.

Well, it comes from a couple of places. In our own country, it probably comes from the tall poppy syndrome. And the fact that we’re quite happy for celebrities to essentially be airheads who are not challenging us about anything other than the kind of sneakers that we might buy. But when they do challenge us about something that we feel even a slight residual sense of guilt about, then of course we hate them for it. Then, of course, for rock stars to preach things like equity and third world empowerment when they actually don’t do anything about it, it’s hypocritical. In our case, it’s always been something we’ve been very clear about. We’re not saying this to you because it’s the right thing to say. It may be the right thing to say at this point in time, but it may not. We’re saying it because this is how we feel and because we’re serious about who we are and the music that we’re making and the kind of band that we are. Then, if we get a chance, we’ll do something about it. That’s been the case for us the whole way. We’ve now been around long enough have seen waves of, as it were, “political fashionable awareness” among artists and through culture. They come and people get roused up, and then they go back to doing what they did before. For us, that’s nowhere near good enough. You’ve got to make the change and continue to live it. So it’s much better to do it and not talk about it than to talk about it and not do it.

To me, a rockstar has the element of the trickster or the jester. Rockstars are stirrers who are able to poke. I think of your performance at the Sydney Olympics for example. That was a really powerful piece of activism, but also seemed a wonderful example of stirring the public consciousness, poking our leaders for a cause. Do you think the rockstar is a stirrer?

I don’t think rockstars are normally stirrers at all. I think they’re usually pretty conventional. I don’t even really know what a rockstar is.

It’s a bit of an old-fashioned term now, isn’t it?

Yeah it is. Look, we’ve never thought of ourselves in those terms anyway. I mean, let’s look at rockstars who people tend to look up to, maybe even worship. John Lennon, Bowie come to mind. Now, Bowie was a chameleon character who produced wonderful music, flirted with fascism, spent more time thinking about what he wore than who he was helping. And he wrote songs which, whilst absolutely wonderful and brilliant, really didn’t say that much except about what was going on in Bowie’s head at the time. With Lennon, the fact that “Give Peace a Chance” is Lennon’s legacy is a wonderful thing ’cause it’s a great song coming from someone who is a long way away from being peaceful at all. So are we talking about the icons? Or are we talking about the people? This is the challenge in this discussion. You can say the same thing about Midnight Oil. We’re middle class and some of us have got more than one home. Et cetera, et cetera. So who are we to be singing about these things? I think the best that we can do is to continue what we’ve always done, to be as true to ourselves as we can. I was always struck, even in the ’70s and ’80s, when we met other bands that really hadn’t thought their politics through. They wanted to stick it to the man, but once they’d stuck it to the man and done the sort of Sid Vicious sneer, they were down at the pub chatting someone up.

[Laughs].

So you’ve got to be a little more serious about it. Okay, Rage Against the Machine, Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, ourselves and others. There’s a category of people who clearly do take it seriously and try to have a go. But we are not a majority.

 

This story originally ran in issue #69 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #69 of Dumbo Feather

That’s interesting, and you’re quite right. That kind of oppositional stance of sticking it to the man, ultimately seems quite empty. Weirdly, I’ve seen that play out through the pandemic with some of those old rockers getting sucked into the conspiracy and the anti-vax.

Oh absolutely. Yeah.

Because it’s just opposition. “Oh, the man can’t tell me what to do.”

Oh no, exactly. And then looking around in horror as everyone criticised them.

Yes! What was it that drew you to rock music in the first place then?

Oh gee, we’re so far back in the mists of time.

[Laughs].

I can’t see the headland for the beach. I know what my answer is and it’s genuine. That key to it is that I loved and still love to sing and to be involved in music-making. I never thought that I’d be doing anything much more than mucking around on the weekend with a scratch band or whatever. Then when I met the Oils, that maybe we’d get a couple of records made and we could take them home and stick them up on the mantlepiece. And our aunts and uncles could say, “Oh, look at what Johnny does.” So there wasn’t any dream of conquering the world or being chart-toppers or having people give you money to play music. Even that idea is still pretty wonderful, you know. And then the extraordinary serendipity if you like, the good fortune, luck, happenstance or whatever it is that brought us together, as a group of individuals – with the songwriting gifts that the band has. Rob and Jim always produce and come up with ideas and songs that Midnight Oil then gets its teeth into, and these things morph into what is our character. Finding people who were prepared to take a stand on matters of principle. It sounds a little high and mighty, but when you’re dealing in the modern world, all of us have got some interaction with rules or regulations, and in order to shape your own identity, you have to do so without someone telling you what to do. In the music industry, people are always telling you what to do, and sometimes they own part of what you do. We didn’t go down that road. We were very stubborn, very single-minded about all we did. And I loved the freedom for us to do that. The sound that we were making was exciting for me. It was keeping me off the streets and it was keeping me out of the law court office or the chambers. So, you know, long may it last! I never expected it to last for 50 years!

[Laughs]. Well speaking of going into chambers, I would like to talk about your political career and when you joined the Labor party, which came as a shock to many people. When you did that, were you more worried about people dismissing you for being a rocker, or were you worried about your fans feeling abandoned because they preferred you to stay a rocker? There’s something not very rock and roll about joining the Labor, isn’t there?

Ah no, it’s not rock and roll at all. Oh well, I wasn’t worried about either of those things. I knew that some people would be cheering and others would be booing. And I knew that people who had a surplus interest in politics and what goes on would see it as an anathema for a politician to be a singer and a writer on stage with Midnight Oil. But if you followed Midnight Oil closely and you saw what we had done up to that point, what I had done – I’d already done a lot of activism by then – it should have made a great deal of sense. In terms of values set, there’s never going to be a perfect fit for somebody who’s strongly an individual going to a mainstream political party. But the values fit was much closer in Labor than it would have been anywhere else, and I had strong associations with Labor which went back years and years. And I’m a team player. Midnight Oil’s a collective, it’s not one person telling everybody else what to do. Or just making speeches and then disappearing off to have a surf. It’s a genuine collective and I believe in collectivism and everybody bringing their skills and benefits to bear. Also, I was a lawyer by training, so I understood how governments work, and obviously how cabinet government works. I was in the cabinet for two terms, which was an elevated position in politics – to end up as a group of people who were running the country. So it’s vastly different from being in a rock and roll space. But I wasn’t worried or let myself be concerned about what others thought about it for one second.

I wondered if one change for you personally was moving from being someone on the outside who could be a little more idealistic to having to be pragmatic and to some extent compromised by, as you say, being a team player. Was that difficult for you?

I don’t want to be critical back in my answer to you, but I think that is a less-than-expansive frame for what actually happens. There are many implications built into the statement. The first one obviously is that you can’t be an idealist and be in politics. I would argue that a lot of people in politics go in for idealistic reasons and some remain idealists. Whether they succeed or fail, whether it’s a scarring experience or otherwise, is not the point. So that’s not something which was an issue for me, and I’d already negotiated international and national environmental legislation laws with three prime ministers. So I wasn’t wandering around Canberra with my guitar case slung over my shoulder going, “Wow, everybody looks so serious here!”

[Laughs].

I’d spent years there. I knew exactly what it was like. And I didn’t know exactly what it would be like to be a minister once I had a department and be in the cabinet, but I had a reasonable idea. I certainly understood the political process relatively well. I’m not saying I knew everything about it. But I went in with the scales off my eyes, no question.

Do you see a need for the relationship between politics and people to change to enable the kind of environmental action we want in the next 10 years?

I’m speaking for Australia now. This certainly would apply in some other countries. I think that one of the biggest challenges we have is that the funding mechanisms for democracy permit the buying of invisible or visible influence. And that is a cancer on the system. Then apply that fact that Murdoch’s news is an active player in the media market and then apply again some corporate interests for whom their short-term bottom line is of far more importance to them than the long-term consequences of their actions. I’m thinking particularly of fossil fuel companies. That is an extremely toxic combination which can frustrate the business of government and reform. Then on the other side – and this is a very heretical view which people don’t want to hear, but it’s the truth from my perspective – and this is partly what our new album Resist is about, we have baby boomers who are good at saying what they don’t like and complaining about things that they disagree with. But they’re much less inclined to give up their comfortable place on the couch and go and do something about it. I mean lobbying politicians or standing for office themselves or forming political parties. If you look at the circus that we have unfolding in the US at the moment, and in parts of Australia, it’s essentially extreme disenfranchised voices to the left or right who are mounting the energy. Everybody else is sitting back. Now mark you, COVID’s been there. But everyone else is sitting back thinking, Ah, okay, well that’s just a rabble and that’s politics and that’s the way the world is, and so on. We all make our own world and you only make it if you’re in it and doing things with it. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be Sir Galahad mounting a charge on the front steps of Parliament House. If you’re doing it in your street or your neighbourhood, in your community, in your school, wherever it might be. But you’ve got to care, you’ve got to be active. You can’t be apathetic. I’m not telling people what they should or shouldn’t be. But if you want to understand why this system doesn’t quite work, it’s just made up of people.

Right!

You could create another system, but it’s still made up of people. And people infuse systems with integrity and with purpose if enough of them are demanding that and are expecting that. I think we are seeing some evidence of that happening. There are some positive signs for genuine grassroots and community activity and involvement. And certainly, communities can shape their lives in the local setting to much greater extent than they could previously, simply because they’re much better informed, they’re quite often more skilled. And the governments or local councils – or whoever has statutory responsibilities or roles – have to take them into account. So they need to listen to them when they step up and say, “We don’t want you to do something over there ’cause we think that wetland’s pretty good as it is.”

At this stage of history, what’s good activism looking like to you?

I think effective activism for organisations is to have a robust theory of change, a commitment to non-violent direct action when necessary, a strategic sense of building relationships and alliances, and open and honest communication with people. I think individually, activism is about losing the sense of why and what you are as an individual to do it, and then in that detachment thinking clearly about where you may or may not be able to make a difference, however small. Then going out and doing that and building on that. Most successful activists start off as volunteers who have decided that they’ve had enough of something and they show up somewhere and roll up their sleeves and decide they want to get involved and do something. That group of people develop good do-it-yourself skills. And that group of people when they join with one another can become a very potent and very productive force.

I think that’s a great description. Your latest single “Rising Seas” challenges people to think about their own legacy, think about how we explain ourselves to the future generation of children. Do you think, looking back, that you’ll feel able to say that you did enough? That you did what you could?

Oh. That’s a question that haunts me. And it haunts others. I think the short answer is probably no. One could always do more. It reminds me of something I heard once, from Mother Teresa. She said something like, “Give until it hurts, and then give some more.” Very few of us can achieve that level of humanitarian magnanimity. But within the reach of our own character and sense of who we are and what we’re doing, I think if I look back, I probably can find times when I could have done more. I am very aware that there are some difficult obstacles in the path for community activists and for people who want to be active, either in formal politics or outside of it. One of them is burnout, where people throw themselves at something at such a level and have some great short-term successes, and maybe some defeats too. But then they literally burn themselves out and it can take years to recover. Often the institutional unwillingness for change is great. I think of forest activists who spent a lot of time on the frontline in Australia in the ’80s and ’90s, and Indigenous activists. It just seems wherever they turn they’ve got difficult mountains of challenges to overcome. The other issue is a hero complex or a lack of sufficient detachment, a lack of understanding that it’s actually not about you as an individual at all. It’s about how we best join together and bring our collective strengths and skills into play in a place where we know and we can sense that we’re able to move forward. That requires a lot of thinking and sometimes quite a lot of hard work on our parts. I don’t think in a lifetime you ever stop trying to figure out how to do that better.

Considering that sense of burnout and despair which pervades a lot of discussions around climate change, are there things, in terms of whether it’s mobilising action on climate or just turning the ship around more broadly, that give you reason for hope?

I went into parliament nearly 15 years ago, in part because of this issue. Because the conservative government of the day wouldn’t take the climate crisis seriously, and I wanted to be a part of a government that did. I was in a government that did. Kevin Rudd, who was the prime minister, called it the greatest moral challenge of our time. We instituted the carbon tax and we started on that path. Our political opponents came back six years later and pulled it apart. That was a defining and very tragic moment in Australian political life. Having said that, the important point is that being able to pull the levers of change for governments in particular to do what’s necessary to hold global heating to tolerable levels is still within our reach. But it will require some massive step forwards and some ambition and bravery. It will require extraordinary mobilisation on the ground, where citizens make sure that that’s what governments do. I’m optimistic that we know enough about the issue that there are solutions, and that we can see clearly what the obstacles are. Am I optimistic about our capacity to get there in time? Much less so, because we’ve been wrestling with this issue for a long time, and human greed and national self-interest are extremely powerful forces. They will require massive transforming and the most earth-shaking actions on the part of the citizens and populations to safeguard their earth. But we’ve really got no choice. The more we know and understand about the size of the challenge, the more easily we can see and get a sense of what it is we need to do. That part of it can be very hard, and that’s where the boomers in particular have the greatest responsibility, because they generally have reasonable means. Not always of course, but generally. It’s not as though they’re struggling to get fresh water into a cup or a bit of food on their plate every day. We as a collective generation, baby boomers, we have been selfish, we’ve been self-centred. We’ve allowed narcissism and competition and flashy new everythings to become the prevailing paradigm, and we have got to get real now. I do know from campaigns I’ve been involved in and that have been successful, that quite often it’s just before you turn the corner that you get the breakthrough. It’s the darkest hour. And you can forget that there’s a whole lot of other people who are probably beavering away doing the same things you are to get to that breakthrough point.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

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