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Peter Garrett’s only regret in politics: I wish I’d got in earlier and stayed longer

Peter Garrett is the lead singer of Midnight Oil – currently on their national Resist tour. He was also a Labor cabinet minister under prime ministers Rudd and Gillard. I spoke to him on Friday.

Fitz: Peter, we speak on the cusp of Scott Morrison calling the 2022 election. As one who was a parliamentarian for nigh on a decade, do you get twitchy about now, wishing you had your football boots back on? Or do you give a quiet shudder and think, “Thank Gawd, I am not doing that anymore”?

Peter Garrett, on stage with Midnight Oil in Launceston during the Resist tour.Credit:

PG: I get a little twitchy. And then I remind myself that I was lucky enough to have a turn in government and did nearly 10 years. And there’s plenty of people out there who are on the field and the signs are excellent they are going to give it a good crack.

Fitz: How do you see the election, shaping up? Are you following it closely?

PG: Yes, particularly since I’ve been in isolation . . .

Fitz: You have COVID?

PG: Yes. Myself and a couple of crew members picked it up when we played in Adelaide. I took the positive in Darwin and I’ve been in isolation for six days and I get out tomorrow morning.

Fitz: Are you okay, Peter?

PG: Yes, I am. Thanks. It is only mild, but more than mildly annoying. As to this election, they say that every election is crucial and the outcome will determine the kind of country we have, but my own feeling is that that’s never been more the case, than it is in 2022, because of the scale and seriousness of the issues we face, whether it’s the climate emergency, fairness within our political and financial system, or we’re dealing with a bunch of other difficult external issues, particularly the rise of China.

Fitz: In terms of your own parliamentary ministerial career, is there a legacy you’re particularly proud of?

PG: Yes. Taking the Japanese to the International Court of Justice over so-called “scientific whaling”; establishing significant marine parks around Australia; the work that we did around getting solar panels on roofs not only of homes but of schools. Really, we “solarized” Australia in that period of six years. On the education side of things, getting a national curriculum for the first time, making sure that we included the arts in the curriculum, and that there was a strong emphasis on studies around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues and particularly involving First Nations people in that delivery.

Peter Garrett (right) in the Parliament.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Fitz: You were ever and always a man with strong political views, some of which had to be subsumed to play the political game and get in a position of power to do things. Is it fair to say that the crushing compromises attendant with being a politician like that were too high a cost to bear for you, which is why you got out? Or was it more simply, Kevin Rudd?

PG: It certainly wasn’t the former, Peter, at all. I understood, and I still strongly believe that if you enter the parliament to join the political parties, you make your views heard in the forums in the party rooms, in the cabinet room, and you fight hard for things you believe in, but it doesn’t always go your way on balance. And as a government, I think both governments I was part of, Gillard and Rudd, will be better judged by history than they were at the time. The education funding, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, the apology, the NDIS … there’s a whole raft of other reforms that you can point to, which actually made the country a better place. So, my only regret is that I didn’t get in a little bit earlier and get a bit more time at it.

Fitz: Mark Latham got you into politics. Are you gobsmacked by what he has been reduced to?

PG: You’re never really can predict the direction that people go in. Can you, on that one? It’s beyond my comprehension.

Fitz: Reading up on your background, and that of Midnight Oil, you and Rob Hirst were among the first public figures of your generation to push Indigenous rights way back in the early 70s, and of course songs like Beds Are Burning were seminal in changing public views. Was there a particular thing that switched you two on to it, way back when or was it obvious to you both?

Peter Garrett and Martin Rotsey from Midnight Oil perform at an event to celebrate the closure of the Uluru climb.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

PG: I think we came at it from different perspectives and in Rob’s case, apart from being a great songwriter, he’s also a serious historian and had high levels of awareness, if you like, that you might not expect from someone bashing the hell out of the drums at the back of the stage. In my case, I had the opportunity to travel north pretty early on in my career. And when we had time off and were visiting communities, we met with Aboriginal people for the first time, had to sit down, talk with them and get a sense of what had happened, what their stories were and how little of it I’d known as a kid growing up on the North Shore. It was just a natural combination of saying well, maybe we can get out there and do a bit more. I think we were not so much focused on the nightclubs, we were focused on the core of the country and what was going on.

Fitz: The path from Barker College to rebel rock star is not a path well-trodden. What formed you and your views?

PG: Well, not Barker that’s for sure. Even though I was well-educated, to be fair, it was a conservative institution. I think it was mainly down to a family background which encouraged discussion about politics. And in my mum’s case, she was a progressive woman of her time. Probably a proto-feminist, really, when I look back on it, and quite a strong Labor supporter, and believed that there needed to be a change.

Fitz: You mentioned your late mother. I know you went through the trauma as a young man of her tragically burning to death effectively in front of you, when your home in Lindfield caught fire. Is part of your own power and passion in your career to honour her and her views?

PG: (Long pause.) I’m pausing because it’s an exacting question. I think the greatest gift that both my parents gave me, but particularly my mum, was the gift of example, not instructions … She was a social worker, and she dedicated her professional life to helping other people. But her other great gift to us was having no expectation or desire to see us do anything other than what we felt absolutely passionate about and might make us happy.

Fitz: On your deathbed in 50 years, is there a particular gig that Midnight Oil played that will be warming the cockles of your soul in your dying breath?

PG: I suppose it’s impossible to go past the Closing Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and wearing the Sorry T-shirts. It was the biggest audience that we or anybody would have played to at the time, and it was about a subject very dear to our heart, how then prime minister Howard had failed to actually say “Sorry”, for the taking away of Aboriginal people’s country when the British first arrived here.

Fitz: I remember at the height of your parliamentary career, when, as a minister of the Crown, you re-joined the Oils to play a fund-raiser at the SCG in response to the bushfires, Laurie Oakes made comment to the effect that it was good to see the real Peter Garrett again. Did you feel like that at the time, that “this is what I’m actually meant to be doing”?

A highlight: Peter Garrett onstage during the closing ceremony of the Olympics.Credit:Julian Andrews

PG: Well, no. Being on stage is not all of me at all. Other things drive me, including politics. Looking back, we try to squeeze everything out of our shows, everything out of our songs, out of our recordings, out of our lives, but it feels as though the last 40 or so years has been squeezed by some gym junkie with an accordion and it’s happened in about five seconds. So it’s all a kaleidoscope of movements and things that we’ve had a go at. And each of us have got other parts in our character and other things that we do. For me politics was a big part of the other things, but not the only thing.

Fitz: Any war stories from sharing a dressing room with Dylan or the like, any world superstars you have crossed paths with? “And I’ll never forget when Mick Jagger said to me …”

PG: Not really. I really haven’t gone out of my way to meet these figures. Obviously we’ve bumped into people along the way. But we don’t have a lot of war stories, like that. And I’ve found that the ones that mostly maintain their success have become people who clearly work hard at their craft, are pretty humble and don’t take themselves very seriously.

Fitz: Is there a song that you never tire of singing, when you go “Bloody beauty now we’re going to do Beds Are Burning,” or the like?

PG: I get pretty revved up with most of them. But I do love Beds are Burning, and it doesn’t matter where you’re playing anywhere in the world, there’s every likelihood that if you weren’t to play it then people might tear the place apart.

Fitz: While you’ve always pointed to the likes of Rob Hirst as the key creative and driving force, if we had to liken Rob Hirst to Lennon or McCartney, in terms of genius, which one would he be?

PG: (Laughs.) Neither of those two – he’s better than both! But, seriously, both Rob and Jim Moginie are really gifted songwriters and storytellers, and Martin Rotsey is so skilled as an arranger. And I was very lucky to end up in a band with people who’ve got those gifts, and to be able to make my own contributions with them. It’s something that one could never have predicted, but could only hope for. Lennon compared The Beatles to Jesus, that was an overreach. I wouldn’t compare us to The Beatles that would be an overreach as well. But I would say that we’ve been very industrious and totally committed to producing music that makes sense for us in our setting about the things that we can see, the things that we believe are important, that need to be said. We’ve been prepared to keep on doing it and take it around the world.

Fitz: You are singing in Sydney just after Easter for “Resist”, on what has been billed as your “Final Tour”. The core of the Oils have been going for 49 years. SURELY, you will give it another blast for your 50th? How ’bout you and ACDC sing on the Opera House steps in October next year, exactly 50 years after Her Majesty opened the whole building, and help us raise money for the republic? It would have a certain symmetry? Would you consider it?

PG: (Laughs.) Of course. If it was brought to us, a) by you, Peter, and b) for the Republic, but the chances of that happening are not too far from zero.

Fitz: But not zero. I can work with that!

PG: (Laughs.)

Joke of the week

It’s a sad day at the Ashbar Golf Club, on Sydney’s western edge. Three old blokes, Jimmy, Tommy and Red, have just come from the funeral of their old mate and golf fourth Danny, with whom they have played pretty much every Saturday morning for the past 60 years. And it’s not just that they’re going to miss Danny’s conversation. The truth of it is that, of the four of them, Danny had been the only one who could see well enough to tell them where their balls went. Without him, it looks like their golfing days are all over .

“’Nother beer, Jimmy, Tommy?”

‘Yup, nothin’ else to do, Red. May as well keep drinking.”

The trio are on their fourth beer when the club manager comes up. “Hear you blokes have got a bit of a problem finding a fourth now that Danny’s gone.”

“Yup.” “Yup.” “Yup.”

“Well, why not get ol’ Davo? Sure, he’s nudging 90, but he still hits the ball well and his eyesight’s as good as any 20-year-old’s.”

Brilliant idea! Just one phone call later and it’s all arranged. Davo will meet them down at the club the next morning and they will play just like they used to. And so there they are at the appointed hour, on this beautiful day. Jimmy tees off first and shanks it a little to the left. They look to Davo, who is staring intently. “Can you see it, Davo?”

“Yep, got it.”

Tommy hits off next and slices it badly to the right. Again, no worries. Davo assures Tommy he knows where it is.

Red, at least, hits his straight-ish, but a strong burst of wind carries it into the forest near the dogleg, as Davo watches on closely. And then Davo hits his own ball – a fairly tepid stroke, though straight down the fairway.

“Right, Davo, let’s go. Where are our balls?”

Davo looks back at them, suddenly stricken: ‘I forget.’

Tweet of the Week

Morrison will call the election soon – he’s just waiting for a clear 24-hour period where someone from his own party doesn’t call him a psychopath. Tipping a March 2026 election. – @TheShovel

Quotes of the Week

“[He’s a] self-serving bully . . . I think he’s clueless when it comes to women. Problem women. Yes. That’s why he has a problem with problem women because we just don’t go along with him.” – NSW upper house Liberal MP Catherine Cusack on the PM.

“Morrison is a horrible, horrible person. He is actively spreading lies and briefing against me re the fires.” – The full Gladys Berejiklian text about the PM to an unnamed federal cabinet minister was revealed this week.

“Morrison is about Morrison. Complete psycho. He is desperate and jealous. The mob have worked him out and he is a fraud.” – Such was the full reply of the unnamed cabinet minister to Berejiklian.

“I’ve got text messages from a cabinet minister telling me ‘I believe you’ and ‘do what you need to do, just be careful’.” – Michael Towke, who initially beat Scott Morrison for preselection for the seat of Cook 15 years ago, only to have lost in highly controversial circumstances. He claims skulduggery to a level that would warrant the interest of a federal ICAC.

“It caught all manner of people unawares, and it resulted in extraordinary widespread, unprecedented damage and destruction. In hindsight it would have been great to have all manner of additional things in place, if there was a forecast that indicated what ultimately happened – and there wasn’t.” – Resilience NSW boss Shane Fitzsimmons to a budget estimates hearing, saying there was no confusion about who was in charge during unprecedented floods in the state’s north, denying the government “dropped the ball” in its response.

“You told me that the draft SEPP was too complicated, that it placed too heavy a regulatory burden on building new homes. There were too many principles and considerations which made your job of building homes for people harder. I’ve heard you – the government’s heard you.” – Planning Minister Anthony Roberts, telling property developers he had scrapped his predecessor Rob Stokes’ draft planning rules for greener and more sustainable housing development. Unbelievable.

“I cannot wait to get back and spend some time in Launceston to be frank, the longest I’ve spent in my house here in Launceston, in the last couple of years, was the seven days I had in isolation.” – Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein announcing his retirement from the job for “family reasons”.

“The strategy is one of only a handful in the world to explore ways to protect and preserve LGBTIQA+ culture and communities, and the first of its kind in Australia. Together with new planning controls, [this strategy] will help us deliver more cultural spaces — galleries, space for artists, theatres, restaurants and nightclubs — [in] a 24-hour precinct that has more inclusive and diverse cultural offerings.” – Lord Mayor Clover Moore about plans to retain Oxford Street’s queer identity during a phase of redevelopment.

“Our musicians wear body armour instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded in hospitals, even to those who can’t hear them. But the music will break through anyway.” – Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking from a bunker to the opening of the Grammys.

“I’m unleashing five years of pent-up anxiety and frustration, and letting our members off the leash. There is no middle ground here.” – Health Services Union NSW secretary Gerard Hayes saying he was letting his 25,000 members, including 3100 paramedics, “off the leash” for the first time on Thursday to launch what he expected to be a series of rolling strikes and protest rallies across the state.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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