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.
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!”
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.
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.