- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

Midnight Oil, more than any other rock outfit from Australia, prided itself on speaking truth to power.

The poetic lyrics of the punk-influenced band decried the abuse of Aborigines (“Beds Are Burning”), the stockpiling of nuclear arms (“Red Sails in the Sunset”) and the plight of asbestos miners (“Blue Sky Mine”).

The group’s most famous performance was likely the one that closed the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when band members appeared onstage clad in black with the word “sorry” emblazoned on their tops and pants. They were making a provocative point - then-Prime Minister John Howard was in the audience, and his government had resisted calls to apologize for the policy that had led to the “lost generation,” the Aborigine children taken from their families in the last century.

Now, however, one of Australia’s most anti-establishment figures is part of the establishment - sort of.

Midnight Oil formed in the early 1970s and disbanded in 2002. Its outspoken lead singer, Peter Garrett, has become the Australian minister for the environment, heritage and the arts - in charge of policy on the issues he’s been singing and speaking about for decades.

So how does a rock star become a Cabinet minister?

“Well, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Mr. Garrett says with a chuckle. He was in Washington last week to open “Culture Warriors” at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, the largest display of Aboriginal art ever to leave Australia. A towering presence with a shaved head, the 6-foot-4-inch politician was hard to miss, which might be why he was almost constantly surrounded.

Mr. Garrett, 56, was elected member of Parliament representing Kingsford Smith, New South Wales, in October 2004. When the Labor Party took control of the government in 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made the MP a Cabinet minister.

But, as the lyrics of his band attest, he’s always been interested in politics. He studied it at university - along with the law, a career track he started around the same time he became the frontman of Midnight Oil.

“We were always pretty interested in what was going on around us, including politics, and had gotten involved in lots of campaigns over time,” he recounts. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1984 as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party and then became president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, serving two terms (1989-93 and 1998-2004) while continuing to tour the world with Midnight Oil.

“I got the sense that some important decisions were clearly being made by the government of the day,” he says. “I thought if the opportunity did arise to be able to take that step, I’d certainly take it if I could.”

He quickly became not just an MP, but the man in charge of some of the country’s most important policy areas. He scoffs at the notion he’s now part of the establishment he once took pride in shocking, though.

“I think that the former government were very out of touch on some issues. Reconciliation and the way we were treating our indigenous people and relating to them were very much one of them,” he says when reminded of his Olympics performance, going on to speak passionately about the art exhibit.

But he’s been labeled a “sellout” and a “turncoat” by former allies, including Green Party leader Bob Brown, who think that as a Cabinet minister, he’s abandoned some of his principles.

An Australian Associated Press writer quoted the anti-nuclear lyrics of “Maralinga” in announcing that Mr. Garrett had approved an expansion of the Beverley uranium mine. Another controversial move was approving the dredging of Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne to allow larger ships in the port.

“There are always bumps along the way, and we’ve had our fair share of them,” he says when asked about his critics. He says that “the fact that I was a very-high-profile figure and public expectations were high” had something to do with it, too. “There was perhaps the sense that you would be able to do whatever you liked on any policy area.”

He also cites a distinctive feature of parliamentary government - “strong party discipline.” He understood how it worked going in, though.

“I knew what I was getting myself into, and I realized that if I wanted to serve at a senior level and work within the political process, it would be within a political party with the necessary discipline that that entails - recognizing that I have every opportunity to speak very passionately to these issues within these party forums, within the Cabinet.

But of course, once the decision is reached, then you go out, and that is the decision,” he explains. “I studied politics and law at university. I’m a lawyer by training. So I had a sense of that.”

Midnight Oil is no more, but the group has re-formed for fundraising gigs, such as those to help survivors of the 2004 Asian tsunami and one earlier this year for the Victorian Bushfire Appeal. “It’s a very special occasion when we get the opportunity to play for people who have been through some grief,” he says, while acknowledging, “I don’t think we can do it every day with my responsibilities.”

That doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his first career, though.

“I don’t think I left behind music,” he says. “I left behind touring and being on the road and motels - that touring side of rock ‘n’ roll. You never lose your love for music; I certainly haven’t lost mine. I just don’t have as much opportunity to pursue it,” he says.

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