Before becoming a rock star, energetically fronting Midnight Oil, and an ardent environmental activist, before even before taking up office himself as a cabinet minister in both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s governments, a young Peter Garrett always had an eye on the big picture.
As detailed in his brand new memoir Big Blue Sky, a series of early influences including a trip to Papua New Guinea, baulking at Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the sacking of Gough Whitlam stirred in Garrett a keen sense of socio-political justice, something he suspects is buried in his bones as we discuss the book in the midst of his national tour.
“When you take that first step to get involved with people or an organisation or an issue or whatever that may be, it’s almost like mushrooms spawning on a field in the rain,” he says. “It just continues to grow and fertilise and become a part of you. It’s almost as though you don’t know it’s happening.”
Back when the Oils were playing Sydney’s northern beaches, based in Kangaroo Street “with a fridge full of T-bone steaks and cans of VB”, a certain future Prime Minister Tony Abbott was their local member. Garrett was regularly called on as the token greenie to debate him in public meetings, getting to know the man reasonably well.
“He’s a very combative person with strong ideological positions and was utterly unsuited to the Prime Ministership.”
[Tony Abbott] is a very combative person with strong ideological positions and was utterly unsuited to the Prime Ministership
Kevin Rudd, too, has been in Garrett’s firing line, recently describing him as a “megalomaniac,” and noting in Big Blue Sky that supporting his “trail of destruction and abandoned policy,” is his biggest regret from ten years in Parliament.
Though he credits Rudd with responding nimbly to the GFC, apologising to the Stolen Generation, rolling out renewables and tackling Japanese whaling practices in the International Court of Justice, he tells me, “it was clear, after a while, that the administration of the government was pretty difficult in his hands, and ultimately decision making became paralysed”.
Garrett’s even more scathing about Rudd’s time white anting Prime Minister Gillard from the backbenches. “I felt that ultimately he did not have the interests of the nation or the party at heart. He really only thought about himself and seeking to reclaim what he thought was rightfully his.”
On Gillard, he’s far more positive: “I found her to be an extremely consultative and positive person to work with and I thought she was appallingly treated by the press and by the country generally. She showed extraordinary fortitude in the face of all of that. Once Rudd beat her in that final caucus battle, that was effectively when I determined I wouldn’t remain in politics.”
Such is the craziness of Australian politics these days that Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t even seized the top job by the end of Big Blue Sky. With that in mind, I ask Garrett how he rates Turnbull’s short time in office so far, particularly with respect to tackling the damage wrought on environmental policy under Abbott.
“It’s a bit early days and Mr Turnbull’s going to have a fairly long honeymoon,” Garrett says. “Whether or not he and his government revoke all the anti-environment initiatives, raising the ambitions significantly for emission reductions, renewable energy targets and putting a high priority on responding to climate change, only then will we know whether in actual fact the leopard has changed its spots.”
The memoir addresses some of the reasons Garrett chose to join Labor, rather than the Greens party, which might have seemed a more natural fit given Midnight Oil’s prominent environmental activism. The main consideration seems to have been where he could have the best shot at affecting national policy.
“I had discussions with people in the Greens party, including Bob Brown, who I knew very well and we’d worked together on successful forest campaigns in Tasmania, but I felt, after all my reflections, that Labor was my natural home,” Garrett elaborates. “I’m a pragmatic idealist. I’m someone who wants to try and see how progress can be made and sometimes progress is a messy, incremental, one step forward, two steps backward business.”
The memoir doesn’t shy away some of his darkest hours as a cabinet minister, including fury over mining approvals, the Pink Batts crisis that saw four tradespeople lose their lives during the rollout of a national insulation scheme and there’s even an odd paper correction inserted into the book addressing a scandal over whether there were wodges of cash or, as amended, a fat cheque in an envelop handed to him (and handed back) during heated debate over pokies policy.
But Big Blue Sky’s not all politics, with insights into Garrett’s childhood, constantly listening to the radio and dreaming big. A cute tidbit reveals a schoolboy crush on Australian actress Jackie Weaver and there’s also family tragedy, with the loss of his mother in a horrific house fire. You get a real sense of Garrett as a private family man, though his love for wife Doris and their three children shines through regardless.
Fans here for the Oils get plenty of recollections of hitting the road, trashing pub stages and even early interactions with Michael Hutchence and INXS. I find myself wondering if they’ll ever reform, as seems to be the trend with old rock bands of late.
“It’s been a really a new experience for me to be out there, with different possibilities in different corners of the compass and music is obviously going to be a part of it, whether it’s low-key or involves the Oils,” he says.
“There are no specific plans at the moment, but we get on and it may happen, but it’s got to be for the right reasons. We’d have to get in a room and see if the chemistry was still there. If it was, you might think about it, if it wasn’t, you’d say ‘that’s fine, thank you for the memories.’”
To buy Big Blue Sky click here.