‘Tell Peter Garrett welcome to fucking federal politics’: Lessons from Midnight Oil’s frontman

The first time I met Peter Garrett was by the side a country road and I was being instructed to tell him “Welcome to federal fucking politics”.

It was June 2004 and Garrett, frontman for seminal Australian rock band Midnight Oil, had just been announced as a Federal candidate for the Australian Labour Party.

I was a journalist on the Sun-Herald and myself and a photographer were dutifully dispatched from Sydney to Garrett’s family home in the Southern Highlands, about 90 minutes south of the city. Our job was to find Garrett, photograph him and get at least a line or two out of him about his new gig. He’d been playing cat and mouse with the press for days, a lot was riding on our mission.

Garrett’s house was in the rolling countryside at the end of a long driveway, so we parked the car and waited. Sure enough Garrett came driving down, slowed his car down and looked right at us. From memory we started to follow him, Garrett driving a white Volvo. I remember thinking it was kind of funny, a rock and roll star driving a family station wagon.

It was pretty obvious Garrett knew we were following him and all I can remember thinking was “This man wrote the soundtrack to my political and activist life, he’s written my favourite ever songs, I admire and respect him as a musician so much and now I am chasing him, oh my god what have we all become.”

He eventually pulled over, I had my deputy editor on the end of my mobile phone in quite an animated state – he was ex Fleet Street and lived and breathed for moments like this – and I asked him what I should say to Garrett as he came lumbering over to our car.

Tell him ‘Welcome to federal fucking politics and if he doesn’t fucking like it he can talk to me!’” he barked down the phone, clearly enjoying himself immensely.

So I had my chat with Garrett, got a few lines out of him, and he agreed to be photographed in town picking up his dry cleaning. Suits, dark suits, no doubt to be worn when he went to meet the big wigs of his new party.

He looked as uncomfortable doing it as I felt watching it.

I have never forgotten about that day, the conflict I felt, how odd it was that this giant of the music scene had become a politican.

Like those dark suits he was picking up from the dry cleaners, it never seemed a right fit.

Garrett served in the Australian federal parliament from 2004 to 2013.

When it was announced this week that Midnight Oil had reformed, I was thrilled. A flood of memories came rushing back – and not just of that crazy winter’s day spent chasing him for a story.

I remember being a seven year old public schoolgirl in western Sydney when Beds Are Burning was released. I liked the song, had absolutely no idea what is was about, and asked a teacher what the line “It belongs to them, let’s give it back” was all about.

Their explanation marked the first time I heard the word “Aboriginal”. On reflection it really beggars belief. Until then I genuinely had not known I was living in a country that had been populated by a completely different race for 40,000 years.

Europeans had come and taken their lands and killed them and taken their babies off them and denied them the the right to vote. My school’s name was “Mawarra Public School”, it is an Aboriginal word, and I still didn’t know. We, that generation, didn’t know, we weren’t taught it, people didn’t talk about it. That’s the power of music. It taught me all of that, in just one song.

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Later on in life I would sit and listen to “Blue Sky Mine” and come to understand the power big mining companies can wield over governments, the damage they can do the environment, the value in trade unions to protect workers’ rights. I joined my local workplace union and took part in many strikes for fair pay and working conditions after that.

Later still when I would cop grief from family and friends and workmates over my strong social and political views I would sometimes put my headphones on and listen to “Power and the Passion”. The line “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees” resonated with me, even if only on a small scale.

There were peaceful times with their music, too, of drinking champagne and watching the sun rise over Coogee Beach with girlfriends. We were looking out to Wedding Cake Island and listening to their song of the same name. They were good times.

I am sure so many of us out there have their own “Midnight Oil Moment”, a time and a place where they heard a line or two from one of their many wonderful songs and feeling something.

The second, and last, time, I saw Peter Garrett was in 2005 when Midnight Oil performed at Wave Aid, a charity concert in Sydney to raise money for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. By that time he had been elected to the Australian federal parliament.

The Oils were the final act of the night and were magnificent. Powderfinger, Silverchair, Nick Cave and Neil and Tim Finn had been on before them but Midnight Oil blew everyone out of the water.

 

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Midnight Oil perform at the 2004 Wave Aid charity concert in Sydney.
I’ve got three little boys now and am far too old and boring to go to any more rock concerts. But knowing the music and showmanship of Midnight Oil is back for a whole new generation makes me as happy as I was that night, dancing in the dark with 50,000 other hot and sweaty bodies and feeling happy there was people like Peter Garrett still in the world.

Welcome back, Midnight Oil. I am glad you took off the suit and got out of politics. You were always way too important for that.

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Don’t like my noice Aussie accent? Bugger off, then.

I once had an English boyfriend tell me if we had children he would send them to elocution lessons.

So they don’t speak like their mother” he helpfully offered.

It appeared he had taken a dislike to my thick Aussie accent and believed it to be indicative of a level of informality not conducive to a full and successful life. He was soon relieved of the burden of having to listen to it further.

My accent has calmed down a bit since I moved from Australia to New Zealand and now I say “fush and chups” with the best of them. But my twang is still there and I still get the odd bit of grief for it. I was once laughed at in a bar because of the way I ordered a glass of wine – apparently there’s more than one way to say shiraz – but it’s water off this Sheila’s back.

I sometimes wonder what Mr English Accent* would think of the way my son speaks. Charlie is now three and although born in New Zealand, he’s spent half of his life in Northern Ireland. His daddy has the thickest Northern Irish accent I’ve ever heard. Some people swear Charlie has an Irish accent, others think he sounds like WWE wrestler playing a Russian bad guy.

But I don’t hear his accent. I only hear the excitement in his voice when he sees a butterfly in the garden or a helicopter in the sky, the tremble when he knows his little twin baby brothers are upset, the lispy whisper when he is sleepy and asks for one more bedtime story.

Nor do I hear the thick accent of the Indian couple who own and work (bloody hard may I add) in my neighbourhood’s local corner store. I only hear the tiredness in the voices from yet another 15-hour shift, the patience when they tell their boy to go back into the store room and finish his homework while mum and dad serve someone.

I don’t hear the Koren accent of a teacher at our boys’ daycare. She was given a job there when no one else would employ her because of they way she spoke. To say all the children love her is an understatement. She is kind and gentle and patient with them. When I close my eyes all I can hear her saying to my sons it it’s naptime now and mummy and daddy will be back soon so why don’t they have a lie down and let me stay with you until you fall asleep.

I don’t hear the accents of the Somalian refugees at the local markets, I only taste the delicious traditional food the cook up and sell at night markets. You’ve not lived until you try chicken spaghetti, Somalian-style.

They stand alongside the men and women from Afghanistan and Syria and Myanmar who make and sell the most exquisite needlepoint embroidery you will ever see, jewelry, hand-stitched bags and shawls. Some can’t speak much English at all, but I hear their sons’ and daughters’ blossoming little Kiwi voices when they act as translator for me.

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My sons don’t hear the accents of the Afghani women but feel their warm hugs instead.
I do hear the deep and proud Maori accents of those who live and work alongside me in the beautiful country. I will never be able to pronounce Te Reo Maori like they can, but I try my hardest and my heart is full of joy knowing my sons are being raised in country that respects its first peoples’ language so much. One day I was driving Charlie to the shops and a bus went past. “Kia ora (hello) bus,” he said without thinking. I almost cried.

And I do hear my own accent, my thick, twangy Aussie-turned Kiwi-ish accent.

I hear it when I am trying to order a Vietnamese dish in a restaurant and completely bugger up my order or when I call out hello to the gorgeous Pakeha (white) grandmothers waiting for the bus and when I buy bundles of bok choy at the Asian grocers and ask how much I owe them.

I hear it when I am telling my boys that I love them, or that no, I won’t be putting on a tractor DVD for the millionth time. I hear it when I sing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads to the twins to make them smile or when I Charlie if he needs a cuddle to make his scraped knee feel better.

But you know what? I don’t care about my accent or anyone elses any more than I care about what women wear or don’t wear on their heads or what tattoos you do or don’t sport or what your faith is or isn’t or what country you were born in or what passport you hold.

Judge people on what they say, not how they say it.

*He’s from Peterborough so you can judge his accent for yourself.