If you were there at the start, back when the Narrabeen Sands was the Narrabeen Antler, when Peter Garrett had cropped blond hair, when the ceiling rained sweat like a tropical downpour, you might remember Midnight Oil the surf band, singing about Wedding Cake Island, long swell lines, and the low coast road. It was a carefree time, but the Oils were just finding their voice. A few years later Midnight Oil cared about everything, from American militarism to Aboriginal land rights, an activist rock band like none before or since. With a ferocious live energy and high musical IQ, they kicked back against an unjust system… but unlike punk they were smart enough to do something about it. Peter Garrett was a founding member of Surfrider, headed the Australian Conservation Foundation, and eventually, in time, became federal environment minister. Midnight Oil changed Australia for the better and became the social conscience of not one generation here in Australia, but two or three. By the time you’ve read this however, Midnight Oil will have played their last live show. It’s a significant moment for a lot of people, not least of them Peter Garrett. But the Oils aren’t going quietly. Their new album, Resist deals with issues of today – climate, Adani, Takayna – and is an acknowledgement that the fight never ends. “It’s the summer of another year,” as the lyric goes from Outside World, “a little world weary, a little more to fear.”
Peter Garrett speaks to Brett Burcher.
* The title refers to the mysterious spoken lyric in the background of Midnight Oil’s famous instrumental, Wedding Cake Island. The band has never confirmed what was actually spoken.
BB: You’re one of the founding members of the Surfrider Foundation here in Australia. What were the issues on the Australian coast that led you to become involved? In addition to that, what was it like collaborating with the likes of Rabbit and Nat Young back then?
PG: Look, I can’t say that I was at a lot of meetings because I was on the road a lot. My communication was achieved on the phone a fair bit. I think that was Surfrider just basically recognising that if surfers didn’t stand up for the coast, no one else was going to. That’s when it becomes surfers versus developers versus the local council. The surf infrastructure if you like, the natural infrastructure, the good stuff, kept on getting put to the bottom of the important file. It was pretty ad hoc from memory and not super well organised. I can’t speak to the culture now. I’m certainly not trying to be some guy sitting on Zoom telling surfers what they should and shouldn’t do, but I think, generally speaking, surfers are not well-minded to get solidly into the structure and process of an organisation. They tend to leave it to people who are talking the loudest or seem to have the most energy and that’s the same in many other groups, but it waxed and waned a bit. If you look at the number of people who are recreational water users in Australia, I’m not talking about hardcore surfers, but rec water users, it’s an incredibly large number of people who really value the ocean and the sea. If you add in surf lifesaving – and traditionally clubbies and surfers haven’t always seen eye to eye – but if you add them all in, this is a really big group of people and a really diverse group of Australians who could literally take a hold of this coastline and take great care of it to keep it as special as it is. I think that was Surfrider’s original dream, and I certainly support it to this day. I know they’re still fighting strong on issues. Let’s just say, in its early days, it was as bit random and a bit wild, and I wasn’t around that much.
BB: With the new album Resist, it feels like the Oils are going out swinging on the big issues of today.
PG: All I can say to that is totally.
BB: The Oils have always had a finger on the pulse of Australia… the social moods of its people, our treatment of the country itself, the big picture of a big country. What do you make of the state of the nation today?
PG: Great question and the short answer is that we are governed by fools and incompetents. People who have given no thought for future generations, or the wellbeing, both of the people in the country and also the natural world, the beauty of Australia as a continent. There’s a tragedy unfolding before our very eyes: beholden to sectional interests, incapable of telling the truth and to me, frustratingly, lacking in leadership and responsibility. I mean, it might sound strange for someone who’s actually been in politics as well, you know, got a lot of stuff done and felt it was a privilege to serve at that level. It wasn’t all plain sailing by any stretch. However, I know that governments can, if they’re minded to, get things done, which can make a difference to the country and make it better. I just don’t see that happening. We need to change our politicians as well as ourselves with activism and passion for the country. The levels of self-interest and selfishness that are around the place just stagger me. There’s still a lot of ‘what’s in it for me’ in the way that people think about the system. I’ve got great faith in the Australian people and what we are capable of and there are some things that we can definitely be proud of, but I’m also deeply distressed and worried about the fact that we can’t address some of the big issues and questions that we need to. And secondly, that we’re in danger of losing sight of what we need to do for people your age and your kids.
BB: The Rising Seas track on the new album speaks to climate change and the mess we’ll leave for the next generation. What do you make of Australia’s role today as the key saboteur of climate action globally?
PG: Now, other than blocking the Uluru Statement From the Heart this is our great national shame. That we will not take seriously the fact that the planet is overheating. Everybody knows it, everybody can feel it, there’s no argument about it. It’s all about ideology and greed. Morrison and his cronies, and some state premiers being enthralled to short term greedy energy and mining companies, when the alternative for employment and for producing clean energy is already sitting there right in front of us. What we used to do as a country, internationally was constructive and positive. We played a really great role in things like, the resettlement of Cambodia back in the days after Pol Pot. You look at the Antarctic treaty and you saw what we did when we got together with the French. An amazing step for us to take. We played a founding role in the formation of the United Nations with Dr Evatt, former Labor leader. He never became Prime Minister, but he was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations itself. I could talk about a lot of other things as well. To see us now, trying to run and hide and pretend that it’s not happening and play weasel word politics, and essentially be proud of the fact that we’re consigning Australians to a living inferno. The way things are going, it won’t be our kids or your kids that are going to face it, we will be facing it. It is a really epic failure and it’s massively important. I’m thinking now about the ways in which the Oils and myself and my friends and others can even become more active and do more to turn this thing around before we really have got a big mess to clean up.
BB: There’s a bit of a lost hope in Australian politics. Where are you finding inspiration or hope from ahead of the next election? What can be done?
PG: If you lose hope in politics, overall, then there’s always a likelihood that you’ll fall for a bit of glib hucksterism from somebody. Whether it’s someone who pretends that they’ve got all the answers, but they just don’t want the accountability of a system to give them to you. So, politics is imperfect, no question about that, and it’s in a particularly poor place. But it’s still the best democratic system that we’ve managed to evolve so far, and we need to keep working in that place, both on people who are elected and people who want to be elected. With the change of government, I hope that we end up with the majority of people in parliament who are committed to doing something serious about climate change and changing the economic system so that it just doesn’t provide benefits for rich and older people. A government that actually takes younger people into account. We do need some massive reform of the tax system. It’s crazy that housing is as expensive as it is in Australia. It doesn’t have to be that way. I mean, you’ve got things like negative gearing, so of course housing’s going to be expensive. It’s nuts. It’s just so callous and shortsighted. The developers, the real estate industry, the big mining companies, and energy companies have had sway over federal politics and state politics to a far greater extent now, and that needs to be wrested back. It can happen through independents, it can happen through trusted alternative political parties, and it can happen in the mainstream if the party is prepared to stand up for people’s interests.
BB: At some point soon, the Oils will step off the stage for one last time and that’ll be it. How do you feel about that chapter of your life essentially closing?
PG: I haven’t really had a chance to think about it, but I know it’s the right thing for us to do. The value that we’ve placed on performance and giving our everything is a value that requires a certain amount of effort and a certain number of moving parts to work. And, you know, you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s going to last indefinitely. It just can’t. By no means does it mean that we’ll stop being musical or making music. I don’t think there’s any question that people will continue to do that in whatever configurations they choose. For me, I’m probably just going to take each show as it comes and just be in the moment really, which might sound a bit cosmic, but I think it’s probably the only way to do it. Otherwise, I’ll either get nostalgic or break into tears.
BB: What do you feel the legacy of the Oils will be?
PG: Others to judge. When you start writing your own epitaph then your head has become too big.
For the full interview grab a copy of SW417 here.