Culture //

Midnight Toil

Josh Koby Wooler’s bed is burning

I’ve always been a huge fan of Midnight Oil and so have my parents, who heard them play at university in the 80’s. More than any other band, Midnight Oil always had a clear political message.

A charismatic, wildly-flailing Peter Garrett exuded idealism and genuine passion. And he gave us a new way of dancing. Last week, Midnight Oil announced they would be re-forming to tour, and on Monday, Peter Garrett “was back” with a new single, Tall Trees.

The question I was left asking was: how could a band, whose entire existence was predicated on a political message, even hope to re-form given their lead singer had a stint in federal politics?

Peter Garrett quit Midnight Oil to focus on a political career in 2002. He joined the Labor Party in 2004, and was swept into office. Garrett, who previously described the US-Australian alliance as “a setback for your country” in the song US Forces, was now its proponent.

In 2007, Garrett became the Environmental Minister in Kevin Rudd’s new government. His immediate decisions included approving the expansion of a uranium mine in South Australia and the dredging of Port Phillip Bay. These garnered widespread praise from the uranium industry.

Midnight Oil’s 1990 hit Blue Sky Mine described a worker labouring for a mining company to feed his family, whilst worriedly asking “who’s going to save me?” from mining’s health effects. He criticised the prioritising of financial reward over environmental sustainability: “nothing is as precious, as a hole in the ground.” Garrett seemed to forget these lyrics the minute he assumed office.

Garrett and Midnight Oil’s iconic song Beds are Burning, which declares that “the time has come” to recognise Indigenous land rights, was undermined by his 2012 effort to take away Centrelink benefits from Indigenous parents that were not sending their children to school. This move was heavily criticised by Indigenous activists and Amnesty International, who said “it did not respect the rights of those affected”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, following the 2013 leadership spill, Garrett decided he’d had enough, and resigned from politics into relative obscurity. Until last week.

The return of Garrett and Midnight Oil marks the strange reappearance of a man whose commitment to idealism and authenticity has been called into question. His single Tall Trees has no blatant ideological message. He still tells us he’s “moved by daily passions”, but it’s difficult to take him seriously.

I feel sorry for Peter Garrett. He’s someone who’s been corrupted by the political process: if you don’t toe a particular party line, you become a liability. Surely Garrett must have known he would have to compromise his beliefs before entering politics. And perhaps this knowledge makes the reasons for his entrance seem a little less noble.