Midnight Oil are re-forming but Garrett's power and passion still questionable

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Midnight Oil in concert (image via midnightoil.com).

Midnight Oil are re-forming, but there is little evidence of frontman Peter Garrett's influence on government reforms with either incarnation, says John Passant.

MIDNIGHT OIL, one of the great bands, are re-forming, in more ways than one.

Many people will know the story. The band broke up in 2002. In 2004, Peter Garrett was celebrity headhunted to the Labor Party. Then leader Mark Latham imposed him as a Labor candidate on the seat of Kingsford Smith, despite opposition from within the local party. He was duly elected.

Garrett served in the Rudd and Gillard governments as environment minister from 2007 to 2010, and then as education minister from 2010 till 2013.

Garrett left Labor politics in 2013. He jumped from the Rudd-Gillard ship — a ship on a collision course with the electoral iceberg. The trigger for his resignation from the cabinet and the ALP was the Parliamentary Labor Party's decision to dump Julia Gillard as prime minister and return Kevin Rudd to the position about ten weeks before the 2013 election. That election saw Tony Abbott triumph.

In 2016, Midnight Oil announced it would re-form and, last week, released its world tour dates. Garrett’s distinctive voice and the band’s often hard, driving sound are just part of the appeal. Midnight Oil’s songs are often deeply political and clearly left-wing.

Who, for example, could forget the searing anti-imperialism and anti-American bases sentiment in 'U.S. Forces'? Peter Garrett could, apparently — at least while he was in government. As a Labor member and minister he defended U.S. bases.

Who, too, could forget the deeply moving pro-Aboriginal and anti-mining song 'Dead Heart'?

This was a song which, as Ari Sharp said in the Sydney Morning Herald:

‘ ... explicitly railed against the power over public decisions wielded by the resources sector: "Mining companies, pastoral companies / Uranium companies, collected companies / Got more right than people / Got more say than people."’

The words were eerily prophetic when, in 2009, as environment minister, Garrett, the man who had also previously been head of the Australian Conservation Foundation, approved the environmental go ahead for the Four Mile Uranium mine.

It was a decision some, but not all, of the affected Aboriginal community condemnedIn response to Garrett’s decision, a traditional owner warned that the risks of the mine were too great.

Could anyone forget the Oils haunting song Beds are Burning’ and its call for Australians:

To say fair's fair
To pay the rent 
[to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people]
To pay our share

The time has come
A fact's a fact
It belongs to them
Let's give it back


Yet, as the recently released 'Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2017' shows, we have gone backwards as a nation in six of the seven key areas which measure the economic, social and political gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of the Australian population.

This is a failure of current and previous governments, Liberal and Labor, including Labor governments with Garrett as a minister. Far from recognising that "It belongs to them, let’s give it back", Labor window dressed. For example, they used words of apology to the Stolen Generations to assuage guilt, and disguise the dispossession and indigenocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

These were Labor governments that Garrett was a key member of — governments of talk without progressive action. In fact, the Rudd and Gillard Governments, of which Garrett was an important member, continued the racist John Howard Northern Territory Intervention, based on the lie of protecting children. 

Some Aboriginal people remain very upset about Garrett’s actions when in power.

For example, Uncle Ken Canning, Socialist Alliance candidate in the July 2016 election for the Senate in NSW and proud Murri man and fighter, posted on Facebook:

PROTEST PROTEST PROTEST. Protest the return of this pseudo socially enlightened band. Peter Garrett made a fortune singing about the human rights abuses of Aboriginal Peoples, only to sign a document as the environment minister in the Labor government re-opening a poisonous mine. This mine was so toxic that even a LNP government had shut it down. Along comes our alleged social hero Garrett and re-opens it. The mine is on the McArthur River, running straight through the Borroloola Peoples Lands. It has caused spontaneous nose and ear bleeding, early deaths and other related illness. Garrett has announced a national tour, let's see if he goes to Borroloola Lands in NT, they have vowed to throw him off their Traditional Lands if he ever shows his treacherous face there again. Follow the lead of these brave Warriors and boycott this money driven musician/politician, using Our Peoples issues as a platform for his own glory.

Garrett himself made a range of other decisions which directly contradict the progressive sentiment in Midnight Oil songs including, according to LeslieRichmondin Green Left Weekly, approvals related to Gunns Pulp Mill, dredging in Port Phillip Bay, Sugarloaf pipeline and support for U.S. bases, to name a few.

Garrett has justified his actions in terms of being a team player and bound by caucus decisionsGarrett has also argued, when in government, that times had changed since his earlier Midnight Oils days. If so, does that mean that the resurrected Oils will not be progressive – times have changed after all – but rather pragmatic (AKA conservative)? I suspect they will continue to mouth progressive platitudes to re-engage their loyal following and try to attract a large number of younger people, sick and tired of the tweedledee and tweedledum of Australian politics and looking for some sort of progressive outlet. There is a lot of money to be made in this niche.

Garrett faced the classic dilemma of all reformers — entering Parliament through the Labor Party to implement even some of his progressive views saw the host take over the parasite.

As former Greens leader Bob Brown said of Garrett:

‘He hasn't affected the Labor Party one iota. The Labor Party machine has taken him over and turned him into an anti-green campaigner.’

You could say the same about the Greens. Parliamentary cretinism has enveloped the ALP and the Greens. Both think that change comes through Parliament and that winning elections and doing things by the Parliamentary book is the way to win progressive change. After many years of ALP neoliberalism – and with the Greens rushing to the centre – both are becoming less and less relevant to more and more voters.

Both parties have effectively abandoned the idea of struggle outside Parliament forcing real change for the benefits of workers and the poor through the Parliaments of the rich and their hangers-on. Imagine if Peter Garrett as an MP had called on supporters to stop the Four Mile mine? To close down the centre of major towns on Invasion Day and demand a treaty? To occupy for equal marriage? To strike for better wages and safety on site?

Songs won’t change the world. Neither will poems. By all means go along for a night of unethical reformism set to music and enjoy the sentiments and the sound. But stay focussed on the fact that change doesn’t come about by putting the likes of Peter Garrett into Parliament. Real, progressive change comes when we take to the streets and withhold our labour to force capital and its parliaments to provide us with the wherewithal for a better life.

John is a former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation. Read more by John on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE. Music Duo The Awesomeare putting a number of John Passant's poems to song. Stay tuned for the release of the CD later this year.

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