IT WAS in August 1990 under the shadow of the looming First Gulf war that I listened to Peter Garret’s powerful message delivered on stage. “Stand up for what you believe in, don’t be another cog in the machine – get out there, make a difference and don’t listen when the generals talk!”
To a thirsty young man adrift in the desert of a soulless and materialistic world, Midnight Oil’s lyrics were like the promise of cool clear water at the oasis on the horizon.
To the despair of my well-meaning but conservative parents and with “Power and Passion” playing full bore on the tape deck of my station wagon, I loaded my camping gear and surfboards and abandoned my secure future as corporate executive in Melbourne. I was determined that these would not be my forgotten years.
On this journey one of the most amazing nights of my life was spent watching the Oils play in the rainforest at Kuranda, near Cairns. Intoxicated by perfume of the warm forest and the girl in my arms, I cheered on Peter Garrett as he warned of the dire consequences of privatisation, the US invasion of Iraq and the overdevelopment of Cairns. The only discordant note was a drunk heckler swilling a smuggled in stubby and calling out for Garrett to “Stop the bullshitting and keep singing”.
Fast forward to 2007. Through hard work and sacrifice I’d found my oasis, a little coastal hamlet east of Melbourne where my young family lived and I practised as an acupuncturist and was president of the local Boardriders club. How to live more simply and help people to understand the rhythms of nature was and is important to our young family. We’d rejected opportunities in the city out of the principles we valued the most. We felt blessed, able to contribute to our community and lucky enough to have pristine beaches to enjoy and commune with.
Meanwhile south-east Australia was in the grip of a drought, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Victoria was particularly hard hit due to successive state governments failing to upgrade water infrastructure. In France, maps of first-world countries gripped by drought sent desalination companies into a marketing frenzy, and soon slews of snake oil salesman were fluttering glossy brochures at decision makers across Australia. The fix was in.
During his 2006 re-election campaign, Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks had denigrated plans by the opposition for three 50-gigalitre desal plants to be constructed as needed around Port Phillip Bay, decrying the exorbitant amount of energy and money required to produce water from this process.
In July 2007, the re-elected Premier shocked the state by reneging on plans to recycle water, instead opting for the country’s largest desalination plant, to be built on Bass Coast.
My wife and I felt like a bomb had been dropped on our world. We worried about the impact on the local environment, but our main concern was that such a huge policy mistake could be made when what was needed was real action to stop climate change.
Instead the Premier had simply said to the electorate and business alike, “You don’t have to change your behaviour at all – here’s a shiny new machine that will fix all our problems!”
Inspired by Garrett and the Oils, among others, we knew we had to stand in the way. Uppermost in my mind was that if we could convince Melbournians to do the right thing (conserve energy and recycle water) we would send shockwaves through the nation. There was a line in the sand and we Victorians would not choose our comfort over a safe climate.
So over late 2007 and 2008 I and my fellow Boardriders club members worked with other environment groups lobbying everyone we could. A key part was to talk to the ordinary punter, leaflet drop and write letters and petitions to politicians.
A frequent comment at that time was “Why don’t you talk to Peter Garrett? Surely he’ll help you.”
Like many others, I wrote email after email to his parliament house address. These first emails were polite and courteous and simply asked for a meeting to start a dialogue and to help him understand what was going on in Victoria. Over time, they became more incredulous and then angry as it became clear that he had no intention of even responding. He did what no one who had sung any of those Midnight Oil songs had the right to do – he hid behind the levers of government and refused to get involved.
Regardless of the virtues or otherwise of the project, as federal environment minister, Garrett had to approve the project under the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Environmental groups, including Your Water Your Say (bankrupted by the State Labor Party in an act of political thuggery) and its successor, Watershed, made continual approaches to Garrett based largely on the unacknowledged fact that migratory whales frequented the coastline on which the plant was to be built.
Ironically, after Garret approved the desalination plant, one of his advisers did finally visit the site on the Bass Coast to ascertain whether or not Watershed was likely to mount a potentially embarrassing legal appeal against his decision. When confronted with the pristine beauty and location of the plant, the adviser slumped his shoulders and mumbled, “We had no idea ... We just kept out of it because it was a Labor state government, so we trusted them.”
Now, 10 years later, Peter Garrett is resurrecting his reputation as a warrior for the environment while we who fought to protect environmental values look on in disbelief.
I’m sure other environmental groups will feel a similar sense of betrayal by a man who promised so much on stage and yet failed to deliver when he had the opportunity. Garret may have tried to make a difference but ultimately all he left us was empty words sung to a catchy tune.
I can’t listen to the Oils now as it reminds me of the hurt and anger at being so disillusioned with the political process and Peter Garrett. His failure to engage with people who believed in what he preached and who took it to heart is a betrayal of epic proportions.
Perhaps now he has heeded the words of that drunk all those years ago in Cairns to stop the bullshitting and just sing, but casting my mind back to the Oils’ amazing performance at the Olympic games I can still see the SORRY T-shirt Garrett proudly wore that night.
Peter Garrett will need to wear that shirt a lot more before I can listen to the Oils again.