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Australian pop music crusader Jack River chats to music icon and activist Peter Garrett about post-apocalyptic Australia, soft revolutions, political hope, and more.

It is 2020. The hells of the bushfire season have whipped our country into a whirl of political, social and environmental hysteria. There is a virus circulating the Earth at warp speed, threatening a significant percentage of the human population.

Those of us who have access to lightspeed technology wake up to 45 minutes of mindless scrolling on social media, clicking off to humorous cat content or fashion brands and then circling back to post a #environmental plea. We feel stranded and confused in a world caught between cricket and COVID-19. 

Peter Garrett has led multiple generations in progressive movements in our country. As frontman of Midnight Oil, and in his political career as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, and then Minister for Education, as an MP under the Australian Labor Party in the seat of Kingsford Smith. 

Jack River: How are you feeling about the time we’re living in, in this post-apocalyptic moment in our country?

Peter Garrett: Well, that’s a very big question. In some ways, each generation feels as though the time that they are in is the most important time, and the challenges and shape of the moment seem much more vivid and much larger, and sometimes much more daunting than any time before. 

I think that’s quite understandable because all your senses are very alert and alive and you’re thinking a lot about the world that essentially you’re starting to take your place in. And you can see with probably more clarity than older people can, what really needs to be addressed and what’s going on. At the same time, you’re impatient and frustrated when you put your shoulder to the wheel and the wheel doesn’t move. 

For me, the short answer to that has really just always been to recognise that any form of activism, is like a relationship or writing a song. It’s about persevering… Yes, it’s the fire in the belly but also an understanding that sometimes it really is a marathon, not a sprint.

Indeed, a lifelong road… So you have lived through tumultuous leadership spills, traversed the lines of music to leave your voice as a member of parliament. You must have experienced many times where you felt helpless and severely detached, and then somehow emerged from that place.  Can you recount a time where you have felt stopped in your tracks by your environment and how have you emerged?

I’ve never really felt helpless at all. Partly because no matter how much the blinds are drawn I can usually see a glimmer of light through the window. And I am a really strong believer in collective work and working with others, working in community, working in partnership, working in relationships.

You can only do it with other people. I think that the media, and sometimes part of our culture, our western culture, and the music culture as well, is all about glorifying or objectifying an individual or a person, calling them a star, or a this or a that. But really, for me, how we get through these very difficult times is going to be dependent on how we find good ways of collaborating and working together.

Young people increasingly feel like their voices aren’t being heard or taken seriously by leaders in power. Especially through something that felt like a progressive federal election (with many flaws, of course) but a lot of people experienced being a part of that process for the first time, only to be let down.  Obviously, it’s a long road but how would you tell them to maintain hope? 

Many of the soft revolutions of the 20th century have had young people in the engine room driving, provoking, and articulating a vision for a better place. 

If you look back at the formation of the political parties, of the union movement, of the women’s movement, and then the environment movement, trade unions… these things were originally done by relatively small numbers of people who were absolutely committed and convinced, and worked together and made those changes.

And sometimes that involved getting their hands dirty, so to speak. By that I mean getting involved in work they didn’t expect to. Sometimes it involved them in formal politics, which some of them might not have thought they would be involved in. Sometimes it involved them in lifelong struggle. Sometimes it split their families up, sometimes it busted up relationships. But those people did the hard work for us. 

They have given us the space to continue on. But continuing on hasn’t gotten easier. In some ways it’s gotten harder, partly because of the way the modern world works, and partly because of some of the scale of the issues. Your neck gets a bit sore when you’re looking up to that mountain. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t be climbed. And I think it’s generally the young, not only young at heart, but young in body and mind, who have got the physical and the emotional energy to take on some of those tasks, and they’ve also got the clarity of conscience.

I think it’s so important. I think Australia needs to develop that memory of the incredible things that have made our country what it is, like the Medicare system – and who fought for it. When you’re born into a time in your country, you haven’t seen the struggle of people before you who have made those things and a lot of Australians, I think, take them for granted. 

Yeah totally. And here’s the thing – nothing is granted as an automatic right, and there’s nothing that we have that can’t also be taken away from us or just eroded by greed and stupidity, and people wanting to exercise power in their own interests and not in the interests of the whole….

And that’s why this particular point in our history is an incredibly, incredibly critical one and also quite dangerous because we clearly have people who are quite willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of the planet, never mind the lives of people that live on the planet, for short term political and economic interests. That’s been the case in the past but never on such a great scale, say for example, we have with the climate crisis at the moment.

In China, they are planning 100 years from now. But we seem to be stuck in a three-year political cycle, living in a media simulation controlled by one company in particular. With those circumstances, how can a country dream up a future for itself? How does that happen?

I think it has to grow up a little bit more. And take account of the achievements of the past. Understand how they were won, and recognise that it just didn’t simply happen on a keyboard having a vent. Nothing wrong with any of those things, but just having a vent to your mates, there’s a lot more to it than that. 

I think that another element is the genuine, absolute recognition of prior occupation by First Nations people whose understanding and knowledge about the land was very deep. Whose culture and heritage are still very much alive and can be something which we’re lucky enough to be able to have as part of our foundation character. 

And then, I think that the other side of it is really some pretty serious thinking about, what are our values? Do we really think that our values are about a fair go, about fairness so that everybody gets treated reasonably well, never mind how old they are, or what colour they are, or where they live?

And what do we see as our national goal? Do we see our national goal to be dominating other countries and throwing our weight around, or do we see our national goal as being a positive force for good, a good neighbour role? Which is very much what I think we should be.

Right now in international affairs, for the most part we’ve got a bunch of adults masquerading as leaders, like self-centred adolescents in a sandpit, kicking sand in one another’s eyes.

Totally, and how do we shift that?

Well for musicians like you and I, and for music lovers, some of that is reflected through music. For people involved in political campaigns that are important to them, it means working with others that feel the same way, joining non-government organisations, or supporting them. If you’re working and you’ve got a working income sending a bit of money their way.

In the political process that means not turning off to the process but engaging with it. When the time comes for the country to make its next big decision about the direction it wants to go, it’s making sure that young people are out in force to try and make the right decision.

And what is the music industry’s role in change, or music’s role in change in Australia? And could we be doing more to support progressive voices in our country? 

I think the short answer is, we can always do more. I can’t remember whose expression it was when they were asked about, “What should my attitude be towards charity or giving a little bit of money to someone who is poor?”, or something like that. And the answer was, “Give until it hurts.”

One thing I would say is that I think we’re not going to get the stimulation from an international artist to show us the way. We have to find it within ourselves to do it.

I feel like there’s moments in history, moments when a whole country is literally and metaphorically feeling like we’re in a furnace. Unlikely heroes, both public and private, emerge because they must, but usually, for people to make huge life decisions such as, say, enter politics when they weren’t planning to, start a revolutionary tech company, or create an event like Emergency Climate Summit.

I presume you’ve been through many moments like this and I wanted to know about that moment when you said, “Fuck it, I’m just doing this.” 

I’ve probably personally got a couple of moments. I think for all of us there’s usually a moment in childhood, quite young, where you suddenly look at something and say: “That’s wrong” or; “I want to fix that” or; “That should be fixed” or; “Why is that happening?”

I grew up near the water and surfed a lot and suddenly realised that I was actually surfing in raw sewage. And just got out of the water one day with all this stuff all over me and went, “Hang on a minute. I can’t do this any longer, no one should have to do it and this is wrong.”

I think when my first daughter was born. In fact, when all three of my daughters were born, and just seeing a newborn baby for the first time and just realising that nothing else really mattered or counted. But at the same time thinking, “What sort of world am I bringing them into? What sort of world will they live in?”

But more than anything else, I truly believe that it’s about setting aside, as it were, a sense of what you can get from it, but more thinking about, “How can I find people that feel the way that I do, and I can work with them to give something for them, or for the community, or for the country?”

And that always sounds a little weird and fractured because so much of what we have to swallow in popular culture is completely the antithesis of that. It’s totally the opposite of that. So sometimes you do stand off in the corner on occasion and think, “Well, I can hear the song, but it’s not moving me anywhere, so I’ve got to create the song, and essentially, away you go.”

Inspired by this conversation – of which an edited version appeared in the first issue of Rolling Stone Australia – Jack River recently launched the first season of her new podcast, To Rebel in The Times. Announced this week, the first episode features Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson, with more issues set to arrive weekly.

Midnight Oil are currently on track release a mini album – The Marakatta Project – at some point this year, followed by their 12th studio album. 

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