First up, I should declare that I’ve never liked Midnight Oil. I attended my first and last Oils gig in the late 70s at a half-empty Osborne Park Hotel – obviously, this was before they attained the popularity that would launch them as an Ozrock institution. Musically, I didn’t like their sound on record, and live this night I found them uninspiring. Garrett, in particular, irritated me. His trademark open-hand theatrics I found contrived, his lurching about the stage ungainly and distracting.
Further, I’ve always seen the band’s political sermonising, mostly through Garrett’s big mouth, as patronising and oh-so-safely leftist (“pc” in today’s terms), and have long harboured suspicions that these sworn enemies of the corporate world were actually playing the game as well as any suited yuppie, using their intrusively public political positioning as a branding strategy for the business that was Midnight Oil the band – and mighty successfully, as it transpired.
As time went on, it seemed to me that they were possessive of their ideology, almost as if in branding themselves so aggressively they had cornered the market amongst their rock peers on the causes they championed and those they railed against: indigenous rights, the environment, American bases in Australia, globalisation…just tick the boxes, and you end up with the Green Party manifesto. Not that there was anything wrong with that per se. I support most of the Greens’ policies. But I don’t brand my opinions for profit, and neither does the Green Party.
When Garrett came out as a pending ALP MP, I have to admit to greeting the news with a sneer and something akin to “I told ya so”. Here was the great Green giant of Aussie rock caving in to overtures from a mainstream political party that had long since pragmatically dispensed with their traditional left-wing working-class values in favour of more corporate-friendly policies – policies that had rescued them from their post-Whitlam years of political detention. Under Hawke (the Great Sell-out) and Keating, the ALP became progressively more, erm, “progressive” until the ground they were occupying was pretty well indistinguishable from the Lib’s traditional turf. Eventually, of course, they paid the price when the electorate decided they’d rather have the real thing and put the Libs back. Now, 11 years down the track, look what we’ve got…sad, but back to Garrett.
He must have known that becoming part of a mainstream political machine would mean, inevitably, compromising his leftist ideology. So why did he join the ALP? Wasn’t the Green Party a much better fit for him ideologically? Undoubtedly yes, if any of his Midnight Oil political mouthing off can still be taken seriously. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, then, that joining the ALP was a career move for Garrett! What else makes sense?
Bob Brown (Greens leader) has expressed a sense of betrayal on behalf of the Greens at Garrett’s sell-out move to the ALP, and some of the compromises he has already made since being elected as an MP. Well he might, because Garrett has now removed any doubt about his capacity for shelving his beliefs in the service of the party machine: his public declaration of support for an American base in Geraldton, Western Australia would have to rate as a most undignified and (surely?) embarrassing turnaround from the Man of Principle whose past identity is enmeshed with his contemptuous vocal delivery of the lines, US forces give the nod/It’s a setback for your country from the Oil’s 1982 hit US Forces.
But before we damn the man as a shameless hypocrite, we should consider his defence: “You change your mind about some things over time.” A true politician’s answer, Pete – that is, no answer at all. Garret OWES his fans, the legions of Midnight Oil faithful, a real explanation. They believed in him and what he stood for. The least he can do now is tell them WHY he’s forsaken one of his fundamental convictions.
When you’ve hitched yourself to a set of political values so publicly, so stridently, for so long, that those values are part of your brand, surely it is disrespectful of your public – if not downright disdainful – to deny them a full and proper explanation of a turnaround as seemingly abrupt and jarring as this one. Especially since you exploited that brand both in profiling your band to attain fame and success and getting yourself elected to the ALP in the first place. “Changing your mind over time” doesn’t cut it. But like any politician caught in a position of extreme compromise, Pete won’t be drawn into an honest response. Who can blame Puffy Downer and the other goons on the Lib front bench for having a field day with him?
I would contend that Garrett has always been a careerist first. All that huffing and puffing in the Oils, that righteous condemnation of US bases in Australia, was clearly branding first and an expression of genuine conviction second – how can it now be claimed to be otherwise? To do so is to label Garrett ideologically fickle at best.
And if the US bases issue was just one more politically correct arrow in the Oil’s branding quiver, what of their stance on indigenous issues? On the environment? On ANY of the values they professed to hold so dear in those heady days as beloved Oz rock champions of leftist ideology? And the question might also be posed as to where Garrett’s hypocrisy and bending over for the party political machine leaves Midnight Oil’s iconic status, inextricably bound, as it is, with their political profile?
There are many who look admiringly on sermonising priests of rock like Garrett (until now), Bono, Sting and Chris Martin (now there’s a tosser) for their activism on world poverty, the environment, globalisation, American militarism and all the usual suspects. The media has awarded these larger-than-life figures a saint-like status, deifying them as they use their celebrity, wealth and power for the public good.
Indeed, Bono and co no doubt do believe emphatically in their causes and make a positive difference on a global scale way beyond the scope of proles like thee and me. But I’ll tell you what sticks in my craw: as I see it, they carry around an inflated sense of importance and act out of sheer egotism as much as altruism. There’s something in me that abhors bullshitters and egomaniacs, and persons of privilege who look upon themselves so very fondly as they bestow their good deeds upon a grateful world.
Hypocritical sell-out careerists like Garrett who made his name and wealth from the issues he has shown himself so willing to compromise is now burning in a bed he made for himself, torched with glee by the same media that helped to create his public persona. So how are you sleeping these days, Pete?