A fortnight ago, Riverside Stage in Brisbane was rocking (in the rain) to the sounds of Midnight Oil and its front man Peter Garrett, cranking out the band’s best tunes of the past 40 years as part of their three-month Return of Midnight Oil tour.
It was a great concert, even if it was wet. Garrett, now 64, retains phenomenal energy, and his voice – possibly thanks to that decade-long interlude in federal politics – has barely diminished. And neither has his passion for environmental issues.
Wearing “Stop Adani” and “Coral not Coal” t-shirts, Garrett’s constant theme through the evening was the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, the stopping of the massive coal projects in the Galilee Basin, and the push to 100 per cent renewable energy. The crowd of 15,000 roared its approval.
We couldn’t help thinking what might have been had Garrett remained such an imposing figure on the outside of politics during the 10 years from 2004 when he was in parliament, struggling to influence the formidable Labor machine, and as the so-called “climate wars” broke out.
We may be about to find out.
This week, Garrett was at the National Press Club taking the message to a different arena. In an impassioned speech – you can read it in full here on his website – Garrett said the Adani coal project “cannot be allowed to happen” and promised he would be in the front line to stop it.
“There is nothing about this project that doesn’t stink to high heaven,” Garrett said.
“And yet amazingly, the government’s own Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility is considering giving a $1 billion concessional loan, i.e. taxpayer money, to Adani for a rail line from the mine to Abbot Point on the Reef coast.”
Of the unrestricted water rights given to the project, he said: “It’s so preposterous it’s hard to believe. Semi-arid Australia is, in effect, exporting water to India. And to add insult to injury, Adani is getting the water for free.”
He went on:
“The future is here and it’s positive: Solar, not coal. Clean jobs not dirty ones. It’s utilising the ever-present power of the sun in a sunburnt land instead of digging up the very stuff that is stoking the flames of a warming planet.
“Right now, we face a choice: Shall we move beyond the age of coal and secure the future of the Reef? Or do nothing for a few more years and lose our most precious natural asset?”
Garrett said Australia needed to phase out coal-fired power stations by the early 2030’s, and switch to 100% renewable energy.
“It means an orderly phased transition in coal mining areas. It means ending fossil fuel subsidies that support dirty energy. And it means supporting a national renewable energy target to turbo charge the renewable energy boom.
“If this means putting ourselves on the front line to stop the mine going ahead so be it. If it means exercising our democratic freedoms, engaging in peaceful civil disobedience, even going to gaol, that is a step I, and I expect many others are willing to take.”
He was withering in his condemnation of the Abbott and Turnbull governments – for their failure on climate policy, and their destruction of marine parks (that Garrett had worked so hard to establish during his time as environment and environment protection minister).
“The Abbott government’s changes were bad, but the Turnbull government’s are far worse. The proposed changes would be the largest removal of areas from protection ever by any government.
“Malcolm Turnbull is trashing the Liberals’ marine park legacy and caving in yet again to a minority in his party that better approximate the punk band Suicidal Tendencies. Our seriously stressed ocean environments deserve better, much better.”
And he took on the moral equivalence of his former colleagues in Labor, who have refused to stand in the way of the Adani project:
“The Labor party must decide which side of this debate it is on, and provide a clear alternative to the mad, anti-science climate culture wars that permeate the conservative parties at the present time.”
It is clear that Garrett and Labor were powerless to stop what Garrett once described as the “row of younger, seriously hardline rightwing climate sceptics sitting on the other side of the parliament” from trashing their policies – notably the carbon price and the renewable energy target.
The destruction continues. The Coalition is keen for Adani, despite its threat to more than 60,000 jobs and $7 billion in annual tourism earnings, and even wants to build a new coal generator in north Queensland, despite even the Energy Council of Australia saying it was a dumb idea.
Garrett may have more power and influence now that he is outside parliament. It was the missing ingredient at the height of the climate wars, which was largely fought within the confines of the parliamentary chambers and the press gallery.
Garrett wants to change that. The Midnight Oil tour, its first in 15 years, attracting hundreds of thousands, including in Townsville, was not just about a band reformed. It was a push for action.
“Many young Australians, and numerous local, regional and national conservation and climate action groups are already working hard to stop Adani and save the Reef,” Garrett told the National Press Club.
“This is true 21st century patriotism, acting on the local scale for the local and global good. They need support from you in the media, political parties, the corporate sector, from communities and individuals across the nation.”
He might have to push far beyond mainstream media. Apart from a few paragraphs in The Guardian at the bottom of a story about the Coalition MP Craig Kelly wanting to kill the renewable energy target right now, there was little or no mention of Garrett’s appearance (or at least we can’t find any on Google).
Indeed, Garrett is more likely to attract media attention from those complaining about his record as a politician and as a minister, than on his public advocacy outside of the political mill.
Will Garrett be more successful on centre stage as a lead singer and an activist than he was as environment minister? The chances are that he will be, and it might say a lot about Australia’s political system, and the choices Garrett made, if he is.
As he concluded in his speech, from that immortal line from the song Beds are Burning. “The Time has Come” to test that theory. Cos Canberra can’t fix it.