How Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett stays optimistic about the future

Endangered species

As he prepares for two New Zealand concert dates, veteran Midnight Oil frontman and former Aussie politician Peter Garrett explains why he isn’t giving up.

Peter Garrett is not only one of Australian rock’s great frontmen: As an activist and Labor Environment and Education minister, he’s made a major contribution towards recognition of indigenous rights and environmentalism. In conversation, as on stage, the singer of ‘Beds Are Burning’ and ‘US Forces’ has charisma and presence; he’s still got that way with words. Our chat, which has been lightly edited and condensed, covers his optimism, why politics is a mad Mafia-esque dance, and Trumpistan’s excitement.

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Though Trump says we’ll never have Paris, you believe we can prevail against climate change’s existential threat, don’t you?

PETER GARRETT: If anything, Trump’s action is going to spur more countries, more states, more businesses on to taking real action. It’s very interesting; we were in the States at the time when the announcement was made. Within 24 hours, California, the cities of Pittsburgh and New York, a lot of the major industries had all said: ‘Well sorry POTUS, but we’re getting on with it’. I think it’s galvanised Americans in particular who have no intention whatsoever of being betrayed by this incredibly short-sighted and ultimately really stupid decision. The world is well on its way to reducing emissions. India and China, which are big economies now, are going hard at it. The economic price of delivering rooftop solar, in my country at least, has come down something like 60 percent in the last five years. We’ve got over a million solar-powered homes in Australia. Energy’s being transformed. It doesn’t mean we won’t see some really difficult periods. There’s a really significant multilateral effort to turn those Paris pledges into promises. But the train’s left the station and Trump’s on the wrong side of history.

A takeaway I got from your gorgeously written autobiography Big Blue Sky is that you’re an optimistic humanist.

I am, and I think that oftentimes we need to be angry about things that need fixing, and we need to have a sense of urgency and not shy away from the stuff that looks bad and isn’t working well. But on the other hand, I also think it’s really important not to become cynical or de-energised by those challenges and recognise that, with some significant, and oftentimes incredibly awful backwards steps, we’re generally marching forward. There’s always some nasty hard-ass trying to take human freedom back from us, but it continues to expand. The most important thing is making a future that’s going to work for everybody to the best extent possible, that’s going to take into account the fact that we live on this amazing planet – and just get on with that work.

When you were last in Auckland, you quoted the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to change their bad behaviour”. And put your own hand up in a nice gesture of self-deprecation.

Well yeah, you’ve got to haven’t you? I really believe that. One of the things that’s clearer to me now than it probably was when I first started making music, and then went into activism, and then finally politics, is that it’s absolutely essential for us to be honest about ourselves and to try and get ourselves focussed on the things that make us productive humans. If we do that, a lot of those other things fall into place. It’s very challenging, particularly for people who’ve grown up in the era that we have, where I think part of what we’ve been taught is that we can have anything that we want, and everything’s going to be fine, and pure happiness is to be expected in the course of a life. And that’s just not true at all. You go through periods of misery and unhappiness, and tragedy and loss, as much as you do through happiness and joy. In fact, overcoming suffering is one of those existential things that plenty of philosophers and religions have had a crack at. But really the key to it is, to know that talking about it and having a view is only part of it. It’s actually getting out and putting your feet on the ground, and your heart into a place, and your body on the line. That’s the stuff that really ends up counting.

What do you think of contemporary Aussie politics? In Big Blue Sky you refer to it as a ‘mad dance’.

Well it is, isn’t it? Gee, the capture of our conservative parties by the right wing is something which I think is really truncating any real sense of developing bipartisan positions or having concrete action on climate change in Australia at the moment, and that’s tragic. We’ve got a pretty high level of media penetration by News Corp, The Australian and the dailies, particularly in some states. They bring a hard right-wing line, quite often hostile view to reform and progressive ideals. So the character of the country in some ways is being dented around by this. I don’t think it’s permanent but it’s not particularly pretty at the moment. Turnbull was a conservative leader of some promise but he’s been totally captured by the hard right. He’s supped with the devil and the wine’s bitter.

Is indigenous rights one area where Australia has made some progress?

Yes and no. The short take: progress in some ways, but a long way to go in others. Especially when we’ve looked at the state of our constitutional recognition that’s been firing up over the last couple of months at home, you can see it’s still a journey that’s going to require a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

I interviewed the rapper DMC recently, who you once shared a fundraising stage with. “Music and entertainment is a cut-throat, disrespectful, low-life, mother-fucking, crab-ass, lyin’, deceivin’, stab-you-in-the-back type of business, and that’s just the good part of it,” he told me. With your history in politics, were there any experiences in this vein which were too raw to discuss in Big Blue Sky? Or did you put it all in there?

I probably could’ve responded to some things a little better. But I think most of it’s fair. Politics is only painful if you’re a naive baby who thinks that someone’s gonna lay out a red carpet for you and you’ve got no understanding of political history [laughs]. For most people, as is in other parts of life, it’s really the impact that public humiliation, or conflict, or failures, or even successes have on your immediate family that becomes the most important thing for you. If the mafia wants to threaten another member of the mafia, they don’t go and threaten the mafia guys. They say, ‘we’re going to kidnap your kids’ or something like that. Politics is a slightly gentler version of the same thing. I probably didn’t explore fully the impact that I know politics has had on my family in Big Blue Sky. My kids are grown up now so we’ve had a chance to talk about it; the conversation has probably fully finished. But other than that, I think it’s probably all there.

Is going back to the Western Desert [region of Australia] and being on tour giving the Oils ideas for some new songs?

We’ve really been focussed on the business of just making every night that we have work as well as we can. Pretty much taking people to infinity and beyond. Mart [Rotsey, lead guitar] and I were out there [the Western Desert] before I did A Version of Now [Garrett’s solo album]. We’ll go back out and start the Australian tour in Alice Springs. I suspect there’ll be as much inspiration coming from the follies of Trump and the things we’re experiencing as we travel. You can’t be immune to the fact that the world’s in a really turbulent and extraordinary phase, and that’s bound to come through.

What’s your advice for young progressive activists? 

We tend not to celebrate our victories and acknowledge those things which are progressive steps forward. Sometimes it’s okay to fail and it can keep going forward. If anyone’s interested at all about not burning out and maintaining their faith, then you’ve gotta take care of yourself and you gotta look after one another as well. Because this kind of work is more intense, it’s more energy sapping, it’s less remunerative than just about anything else going around. But it happens to be the most important work that anyone can do! Make sure you have a day off here and there and have a holiday.

What do you hope people might take away from seeing Midnight Oil live in Auckland during September?

I hope people take away a sense of celebration that the endangered species called the Aussie rock band has still got something to say to them.


Midnight Oil play Spark Arena, Auckland on Sat 9 Sep and in Christchurch, Mon 11 Sep