Beds Still Burning: Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil on Climate Justice

International Clash Day, Interviews
Owen Murphy

For this year’s International Clash Day: Clash For Climate, we knew we had to talk to Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett, who, besides being the frontman for one of the most politically active bands ever, was also a public servant in the Australia government for over 10 years. He's retired now, but is still involved in changing his world, especially after bush fires engulfed his country and his local community earlier this year.

Transcription by Miina Beyreis


KEXP: You've worn some really interesting hats — obviously a rock star musician, and then secondarily, a politician. Those are somewhat different skill sets. As a politician, you at times probably had to convince people who didn't buy that there was a climate crisis. What tools do you use to do that? How do you turn that conversation around to get people to believe that there is a climate crisis? 

Peter Garrett: Well, I think that's the hardest question in any part of the world. How do you convince people that what we've got in front of us is basically a massive existential crisis. Going back a little, I went into mainstream politics primarily [because] I was dissatisfied with the pace of change by our conservative government. So, I threw my hat in the ring and ended up being nine and a half years in the Parliament, including six years as a Minister, including the Environment Minister, and part of the group that wrote the climate policy here in Australia, which, for a brief period of time, we had in place and it worked. And then, of course, the Republican equivalents got back into power. We just sat on our hands ever since. Which has been tragic. But the short answer is that there are some people who talk and there are others [you] just need to explain the facts to, to say, hey, listen, this is what's happening. What the scientists are telling us — and this has been under way for some time now — it's reached a crisis point. And for others, you just have to indicate to you it's the most important thing of all in terms of issues that need to be treated. In that sense, we've got an emergency in front of us. So, we need to get cracking. 

You mentioned a speech in New Zealand last year that — I'm quoting here — that "you are brave enough and bold enough while working in federal government." What would you do differently? 

Well, yeah, I think the point about those lines, it was the government that wasn't brave enough and bold enough. Not me. I mean, I think the policies that I was pushing really hard when I was there, we adopted some of them. We got the job done, but we didn't go far enough. And since then, of course, the world continues to produce more greenhouse pollution. We've seen temperature increases, the norm across our weather systems and we've seen multiple science come to fall, which tells us that if we can't limit global heating to around one point five degrees, then we're really going to create a messy world for ourselves. So, in terms of being more bold, it would have been stronger targets and more incentives for clean energy industry, electric cars, solar panels. The basic stuff that's going to change the way in which the world uses energy and technologies are already there. It would have been take on the big polluters with more vigor and more determination. And now for me, it's the case of making sure that everything that I do and my colleagues do, whether it's Midnight Oil or the activist communities that I work with, are pushing as hard as we humanly can to make sure that the planet doesn't boil up in front of our eyes. 

Do you live in the bush or have a house in the bush? 

Yeah, I do. I live about half to three quarters of the time in the bush, outside of Sydney, one of the big cities on the east coast of Australia. We're about two hours driving inland a little bit. It's one of few big forested valleys close to the city that you can live in. Called Kangaroo Valley. Home. 

Was the area where you live in affected by the fires we saw so much video about? What was that like for you? 

Well, it was a quite undescribable situation for Australians, including ourselves. We were restricted by the fire. Luckily, our property was not burned down, although a number of our neighbors and adjoining communities lost houses. It's a small village, really, particularly by American standards. Probably not much more than about 800 people and probably a third of those lost their houses. But we've grown up with bush fires. Australia is the oldest settled continent in the world. Aboriginal people are just nice people. They used to do a lot of burning, it was called fire-stick burning, very selective burning of the bush. It's a landscape that is meant to burn. But the big difference here is that we've never seen fires of this scale, we've never seen fires of this ferocity. They're like wildfires — I guess what you call about it there in California where they have them — which moved so quickly and nearly the whole of the country for the last two months in different parts up and down the eastern seaboard and around the areas where people live have been on fire. And it's just plain extraordinary. We've seen an area, near the part where I live in, areas have been burned, bigger than European nations in terms of size. Twelve million hectares, upwards of a billion native animals affected or killed in the fire. Luckily, most of life has been relatively small, but the disruption and the destruction has been unbelievable. 

When children ask you what is the largest problem facing Australia in regard to this climate crisis right now, what is your answer? I'll tell you the answer we've come up with here is, maybe it's time to vote some people out of office. 

Yeah, I think that's certainly true. There's no question at all for us. I've spent 20 years of my life, 30 years, talking about these things that we always said that if we increase the temperature of the planet in Australia, particularly we're going to get much more extreme turbocharge bushfires. We're going to get cyclone activity that's more erratic. We've got to get a sea level in Queensland and central low lying areas. All of those things are coming to pass. They're not predictions anymore. They're facts, right in front of us. So, yes, we do have to vote people out of office and vote people in who are prepared to take it seriously. And we have to recognise that it's actually a climate emergency. It's a climate crisis. And whilst we have the tools at our disposal, the thing that's lacking is political will in many countries and a people's movement which will simply not tolerate letting the planet go to hell in a burning handbasket. It's the most necessary thing that we can have. That's voting. That's civil and political action on the streets, non-violent action on the streets. That's refusing to support the polluters in any shape, matter or form. And it's really standing up for your future in a way that we've never had to do before. 

Where do you see hope? 

Well, from us here in the bush fires, it's really interesting. Our Prime Minister handles what was really a national emergency, incredibly badly, showed no sympathy, pretended it was just business as usual, parroting a bunch of talking points from the fossil fuel industry about energy, economy, and whatever. And disappointed the nation, even if you were tended to vote for this person like I was not. But at the same time, the community response has been incredible. People have rallied, worked with one another. We have a volunteer firefighting service here, people don't get paid to fight many of these bush fires. Now they take time off from work. The danger is intense and amazing, particularly with these fires, which were so big and so hot. Communities banding together, raising money, providing food stuffs, rescuing native animals, and really just starting to take our future into our own hands. So I think the signs of hope in a crisis like this with the people, I think the signs of hope on a greater level lie around the transformation of the economy, smart business people figuring out that clean energy is the way to go. I think the fact that this issue is now coming up the list of issues in Australia, it's now the most important issue for voters in Australia. And that's the first time in our history the environment and climate has been up there on and off in the past because we saw climate effected like most countries, including the United States. But this is the first time that we've been at the top of the list of poll issues. So that's a sign of hope. I think the fact that young people, particularly in our country, at least even school students, are getting out on the streets, they're going on strike while their teachers and parents mainly are supporting them to say, hey, this is our future. It's coming down the pike for us. And we are just not going to accept it going this way. So that's winning political movement. That sense that if we don't do it, no one else will and an understanding that power, ultimately democracy especially lies in your own hand, all the things that we have to hope for. And, you know, given that you guys got The Clash day happening. They're a band that understood that thing very well, too. 

Do you remember the first time you heard The Clash and what they meant to you? What that would have felt like to hear them? 

Oh, we played with them. 

Tell me about that. 

Back in the day, as they say. We haven't always been strongly influenced by any particular band. But The Clash was certainly a band that we liked and respected, and they came to Australia really early on, in the late '70s. I didn't see them then. The boys went and saw them and came away raving, but we ended up on a couple of bills with them in European festivals in the early to mid '80s and then Joe Strummer came back with his solo work and played here. People we knew actually worked with him. So even though we didn't know them personally, we liked what they were doing, loved the music the band made, loved the attitude that they had. I think as far as the politics went and their willingness to put their neck on the line, I think it was a bit up and down to them within the band. But that's, I guess, that's history. That was certainly a standout voice and I just love the way they play. You know, this is a freedom that defines in their playing, which is still incredibly refreshing when you hear it today. 

Do you have a favorite Clash song or a few favorite Clash songs you'll tell us about? 

Well, I was seeing a band I really like around here about a month ago, I went to another city and I got back to the show, and I was too wired up to do anything. And I'm not going to be hanging around in a club or a pub at this stage of the game. So I ended up doing something I haven't done in such a long time, which of course, is watching a video hit song or whatever it's called in different countries and they we're doing a retrospective. And guess who popped up to play? So anyway, it was "London Calling", they were on the barge in Thames. It's a great song. 

So you guys just toured for the first time a number of years last year. I'm curious, was there a song that you played that at this point 20, 30 years old, and if not a little older, that really resonated both with you and with your audience? Maybe in regard to the climate crisis? 

Well, you know, the amazing thing was we didn't expect to come back and play. Certainly, when I came out of politics, I thought I'd do other kinds of work and just make music for fun. And we did go ahead and people came out to listen, which was incredible for us, really beaut. And I think there were a bunch of songs — "Blue Sky Mine", "Dreamworld", "River Runs Red", "Earth and Sun and Moon" — we actually got a lot of songs that address this issue and a lot of people came back and some people came back with their younger brothers and sisters and even, dare I say, with their kids and said these songs are still speaking to them. So, on the one hand, it's a little salutary and sobering to find that those that have been written such a long time ago still need to be sung. But I suppose in a historical span, it's not that long. The fact that these changes and the words and us getting up doing them seemed to have so much juice. Brought the theme into a bit of a focus for us, and it made us realize that whilst there are other bands and artists and individuals like ourselves, this is something that's always been such a big part of Midnight Oil, it's something we taken so seriously at the time, and we love our planet. We believe absolutely passionately that it needs to be looked after. It's not just a bunch of clichés that you stick on the bottom of your social media feed. We really do believe it. And having the music and the performances seem to be even more intense. I mean, I guess because you've got that jerk in the White House and we've got our own shit here. Seems like the times needed the music, so it was good to play. 

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