Live, Music, News & Commentary Midnight Oil may be coming back, but the power and the passion was sacrificed long ago By Luke Buckmaster | February 21, 2017 | Imagine Mick Jagger wrote a kick arse rock song about the evils of uranium mining. Imagine he quit The Rolling Stones to pursue a career in politics and the party he joined got elected. Imagine his government did not scale back uranium mining; in fact they increased it. The rocker himself gave his personal approval, with a contract announcing uranium mine expansion bearing his signature. Imagine his political career didn’t work out so well, so Jagger returned to the Stones. In front of packed out stadiums, he belted out his anti-uranium song once more. Is there something wrong with this picture? Fans would understandably ask themselves: why did Mick do the exact opposite of what he sang about, then return to singing about it? This is a hypothetical situation, of course: I am not aware of Jagger ever asking fans to paint it black on the ballot box. But in the story of Peter Garrett, one of Australia’s most famous musical activists, it is more or less a summary of actual events. Last week Midnight Oil announced its first world tour in 15 years. They’ll need to bring with them one of those Men in Black memory erasing devices, because the decisions Garrett made during those tumultuous years of the Rudd/Gillard administrations, serving in a range of positions including Minister for the Environment, will hover over the stage like a toxic cloud every time he rolls out one of the oldies. Despite the band claiming to have found new relevance in the Trump era, I can’t help but think Garrett’s evolution from long-term activist to politically expedient pragmatist is – or should have been – a one-way street. To go back to performing those old polemical songs once more, as if nothing has occurred over the last decade and a half that might in some way dint their impact, is a truly weird and deflating state of affairs. One of Midnight Oil’s first big gigs was an anti-uranium mining benefit concert held at Sydney Town Hall in 1978. Fast forward three decades later and, despite remaining an outspoken anti-uranium activist (also once a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party) Peter Garrett oversaw expansion of the uranium industry, including approving two mines in South Australia. Will Midnight Oil’s comeback tour include renditions of The Dead Heart? This hot-blooded song about an anti-establishmentarian standing up for the “true country” by rejecting contemporary politics and following “in the steps of our ancestry” includes the following lyrics: Mining companies, pastoral companies Uranium companies Collected companies Got more right than people Got more say than people It’d be kind of weird to have that on the set list, right? For many of us the blistering lyrics of US Forces are still bouncing around the mosh pit of our minds, incendiary and unrepentent. Garrett’s critique of Uncle Sam’s wide-reaching international influence famously begins with the words “US Forces give the nod, it’s a setback for your country.” Garrett doesn’t believe that anymore. In 2011 he praised a speech by Barack Obama on expanded American military presence and said greater American participation in our region can only be a good thing, citing national security issues and terrorism as core reasons for the aboutface. Garrett made it clear his views have evolved with time. Fair enough, I guess. But again: the song’s got to go from the set list, right? How could he (or we) possibly rock along to it now? The iconic The Power the Passion poses the same question many of Garrett’s fans came to ask: “What do you believe, what do you believe?” Its chorus includes the line “Sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line” and the final verse concludes with “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”. That might sound a bit odd coming from Garrett, given what we now know of his political style. Perhaps the line was edited from something a little less catchy: “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, unless entering a period of discussions committed in good faith between multiple parties whereby decisions can be reached and compromises made to achieve a multi-faceted outcome representing a myriad of political and economic impulses, acknowledging the many interests – vested and otherwise – entrenched in a modern mainstream political machine”. It’s OK to abandon your principles, kids, because the world is a complicated place and sometimes you just need to get stuff done. One could argue the classic foot-tapper Short Memory might be problematic as well, given Garrett might have one of those short memories himself. Or a bizarre “mis-memory” as he has described it. This followed revelations that a bribe the singer said he was offered by Clubs NSW in the form of an envelope stuffed full of cash actually never happened. Lyrics about Indigenous land rights in the iconic Beds are Burning – possibly the band’s most famous song – include: The time has come A fact’s a fact It belongs to them Let’s give it back They don’t gel all that well with Garrett walking away from his intention to ban tourists climbing the sacred site of Uluru. What about Blue Sky Mine? This great, beloved song is about the environmental evils committed by big business. How their “balance sheet is breaking up the sky” and “the company takes what he company wants”. Many environmental activists have claimed Garrett acted precisely in the interests of companies taking what they want, from his support of the Tasmanian logging industry to the $1 billion dredging of Port Phillip Bay. The activist-cum-pragmatist no doubt achieved many good things in his time in politics too; the negative stuff consumes the lion’s share of media attention. Nor does this article take into account bad things that happened under Garrett’s watch that may have been worse if they occurred under somebody else’s, although that is a rather nebulous space to be in: comparing something detrimental to something worse that didn’t happen. Whatever you make of it, the moral of this story is hardly inspiring: it’s OK to abandon your principles, kids, because the world is a complicated place and sometimes you just need to get stuff done. When Midnight Oil start banging out their old songs again, Garrett shouting and dancing in that malfunctioning cyborg-like way of his, it will invariably sound like an exercise in ‘do what I say, not what I do’. And that’s no way to rock out. THIS ARTICLE WAS PAID FOR WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT MORE HERE Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Luke Buckmaster Luke Buckmaster is film critic and writer for Daily Review, and contributes commentary to a range of Australian publications.