Peter Garrett is on the road to promote his new book Big Blue Sky, a rollicking memoir of his time as frontman of Midnight Oil, chair of Australian Conservation Foundation and Labor politician and Member of Parliament.
He’s in Melbourne when we chat, “heading west,” he says. Not to regional Victoria, but all the way across to Western Australia – as far west as you can get.
Peter Garrett is not unaccustomed to road-tripping. His career with Midnight Oil saw him travel first through just about every regional town in this country, later through remote Indigenous communities and then finally through nearly every major city in the world.
Later being involved in conservation leadership and then politics, the road-tripping didn’t stop. Peter Garrett has spent a lot of time in airports, planes and hotel rooms.
And despite the variety of roles he’s had he says his occupation will always be ‘musician’.
“Absolutely. Always has been, always will be,” he told Blank GC. “Even if you go through periods where you’re focusing on other things and it gets put in the deep freeze for a while it never goes away.”
Garrett passed through the Gold Coast many times in the 80s and 90s as Midnight Oil found their feet both musically and as a voice for a new generation of activists.
A friend recounts a show at the Stardust Room at Seagulls where he ended up on stage as a 17 year old lad. Midnight Oil also played the Playroom, the Great Northern Hotel, Twin Towns, Palladium, and a heap of other classic Gold Coast music venues and while touring the world and playing a-class festivals, they never forgot their roots – constantly switching between Entertainment Centres, workers’ clubs and uni bars on a weekly basis.
In fact some of the last shows Midnight Oil ever played, just before Garrett’s move to politics, were at Twin Towns. That was in November, 2002. I asked Garrett whether any of those Gold Coast shows stand out in his memory.
“The Spit. Before some of that infrastructure was there now. People were swimming to get there at the promontory and there were boats moored off shore. It was a warm, starry night,” he reflected.
The show he’s talking about took place in March 1991 and was a benefit for homelessness. Garrettt doesn’t remember who else was on the bill but guessed at Hunters & Collectors. Probably a safe guess, given the timing.
To many people, including Garrett himself, Midnight Oil’s Blackfella / Whitefella Tour was a special moment in Australia’s music history. Taking place in July 1986, the tour saw the band visit towns such as Uluru, Docker River, Warakurna, Kintore, Papunya, Yuendumu, Maningrida, Galiwinku, Nhulunbuy (Yirrkala), Groote Eylandt (Umbakumba), Numbulwar, Katherine (Barunga), Wadeye, Tiwi Islands (Nguiu) and Cooinda.
Garrett says that trip spawned a passionate commitment to Indigenous Australia.
“An incredibly historic undertaking,” he said as he recounts the famous tour that saw Midnight Oil hit the road with the Warumpi Band. I ask if that was the catalyst for his curiosity about Indigenous culture.
“Oh look it obviously partly stems from that big tour… out of which came the Diesel and Dust album,” he said. “It was the first time ever that a western rock band had traveled with an Indigenous rock band. It gave us a rare and precious insight into the living culture of Aboriginal people and their connection to Country and the scale of the issues and challenge they were facing.”
But there was another memory that Garret recounts as a significant one in his connection to Indigenous culture. He tells me about Bardayal (Lofty) Nadjamerrek, a traditional owner in the Wardekken Djelk Region, which is an Indigenous Protected Area delivered by the Australian Government to the people of West Arnhem Land. The language group is Bininj Kunwok.
“Maybe the other one, around the same time we bumped into each other at Garma – we had granted a 200sqkm Indigenous protected area back to people in the Northern Territory. The senior lawman there, Lofty was a famous painter and leader of his people,” Garrett said.
“He was very sick and he came to the ceremony but had to sit in a wheelchair and then be put under a shelter nearby.”
“After the ceremony I sat down with him. Within a couple of months he passed away. I guess for me, that was a bittersweet experience. The bitterness was seeing this old man pass on but fortunately being able to do something that he wanted to see before he died.”
Garrett has said many times since publishing his biography that he has no regrets. In fact, if you listen to or watch his interviews over the past two weeks it’s quite possibly the most frequently uttered phrase. He’s a smart guy, he knew what he was getting in to when he put his hand up for public office. Right?
“I think so, you’re not absolutely sure what’s going to happen and you can’t predict events or who’s going to be a leader,” he said. “And the personalities of a leader become important when you’re in government.
“I went in with my eyes wide open. I’d do it again. No regrets,” he tells Blank.
The thing which I often think about when Garrett’s political career pops into my head is how he kind of had this reversal of responsibility. One day he’s held up as a leader of activists, fronting a rock and roll band, next he’s the President of one of the biggest conservation groups in the country and the next he’s that guy. The one that the activists and conservation groups all want a piece of. Everyone has their one project, their one species, their one campaign and they all want your ear.
And the thing with being Minister for anything is that you’re absolutely bound by the laws and legislation and policies of the Government of the day. You can only work within those parameters. Of course. Otherwise imagine if Ministers could just approve or decline any project based on their own personal beliefs?
“You’re right, you understand it better than anyone I’ve spoken to in the last two weeks,” he said. “I was that guy. Wherever I could, consistent with policies of the government. I was able to help those people.”
Don’t for a minute think that Australia’s conservation groups all stand united in their opinion of whether Garrett was a ‘good’ environment minister or not. There are most definitely very mixed and very passionate opinions on this – one friend reminded me of the extinction of a Christmas Island bat which occurred under Garrett’s watch.
Still, he says he has no regrets and we talk about some of the wins close to home.
““I actually got a great letter from QCC when I finished as Minister. There were a lot of Queensland decisions,” he said. “There was Traveston, the Sawtooth import decision, the decision around Waratah Coal and Clive Palmer, the declaration of the Coral Sea Conservation Zone.”
“I did a couple of ‘unacceptables’ – Cassowary Corridor and Great Keppel, but someone came in and it went in a different direction later,” he continued. “Beneath the banner headlines and screaming slogans, there were plenty of things I was able to do as Environment Minister which made it worthwhile and also secured the conservation interest.”
We move back to music, which isn’t hard when talking to Peter Garrett. He was only just in Queensland last month for BIGSOUND where he opened the event as keynote speaker. During that one-hour presentation he shared ten lessons he’d learned as a musician. One of those lessons which struck a chord with me was “you’ll meet people on the way up and then you’ll meet them again on the way down.” I took that as basically meaning – don’t be an arsehole. But I was curious as to whether Peter saw himself as actually having been “on the way down” at any point in his career.
“Not in the sense that some people, bands, musicians experience. They have that brief moment in the sun and for whatever reason the public ear geos elsewhere.”
“No, Midnight Oil is a collective, it’s more than one person, a band of accomplished writers and performers.”
“We played so much – places and people – we’ve all got older so we’re still there. In terms of my other life – it’s hard for me to say. I don’t think in terms of ups and downs much.”
In interviews prior to this, Garrett had mentioned that the process of writing his biography had been the catalyst for writing new songs – something that hasn’t happened for quite some time.
So he has new songs and he has not ruled out performing as Midnight Oil in the future.
“All that stuff is anybody’s guess at the moment,” he told Blank GC. “I’ll do something, but whatever I do will be low-key.”
“The Oils? It’s just a case of if the stars line up and the spirits are willing then there may be a time and place to get up on stage together. It’d be silly to rule that out.”
“Everyone’s healthy and reasonably well,” Garrett says of his bandmates. “And it’s great that people want to see the band again.”
As Peter says, what happens next is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for sure. There’s plenty of life left in this old rocker yet.
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Big Blue Sky was published on 14 October by Allen and Unwin.
Peter Garrett will be on the Gold Coast for the Early Risers’ Lunch from midday on Wednesday 28 October at Sofitel Gold Coast. Tickets are $96 and available at stickytickets.com.au/30512.
He’s also at the Byron Theatre, in conversation with David Leser on Wednesday 28 October from 6.00pm. Tickets are $30 and bookings can be made by calling 1300 368 552.
Image: P Duncan