Peter Garrett: Oil on Water

Australian politician Peter Garrett, the bald-headed singer from Down Under rock band Midnight Oil, is looking to morph a highly successful music career to a position as the country’s next environment minister. With an election looming in Australia late in 2007, and with his opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP) leading the polls with historic margins, Garrett has been targeted for attacks both by conservatives and his own supporters.

Former rocker Pete Garrett has had to make some painful compromises.

Even those who like him have difficulty reconciling Garrett’s past with Garrett’s present. "Of course you change your mind about some things over time," he recently said in a door-stop interview. An example was his response to the announcement that the ALP had agreed to accept a new U.S. military base in Western Australia. Journalists pushed Garrett to make a statement, and he initially refused to endorse the new base. This, despite the fact his own party defense spokesman had already fully endorsed it. Later, Garrett was forced to jump into line. "I 100 percent support the defense minister on that issue," he said.

Garrett’s argument that he has changed his views over time hasn’t gone over well with some former supporters. He was the founder of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the mid-1980s and a forceful campaigner against U.S. hegemony on military matters. Midnight Oil’s anti-militarist song "U.S. Forces" remains one of Australia’s most recognized rebel anthems.

But the new ALP leader, Kevin Rudd, isn’t making it easy for Garrett by pushing the party into encouraging more uranium mining, reversing a decades-long moratorium on uranium mine development in Australia. Still, Garrett has taken a lead role in trying to get the country (one of the only Kyoto holdouts, along with the U.S.) to take global warming seriously. "Australia has a moral and legal obligation to help avoid dangerous climate change," Garrett says.

It’s very likely that the ALP will force Garrett to support programs and policies he has very publicly spent the last three decades opposing. Both through his music and his highly recognizable persona, Garrett has been visible in his efforts promoting alternative energy, rejecting the nuke option, curtailing timber harvesting and railing against militarism and the "Americanization" of local public policy.

Senator Bob Brown, arguably Australia’s best known environmentalist and leader of the Greens in the federal senate, puts Garrett’s dilemma in terms of a well-known nursery rhyme: "Grandma Party says, "Come a little closer, Red Riding Hood," and talks about "changes from inside" and—gulp—that’s the last you hear of them."


—James Rose