More powerful and more lofty passions

It should come as no surprise that Peter Garrett has burst onto the party political scene amid controversy. It’s not as if he’s lived his adult public life as a wallflower. The French historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville may well have understood the drive behind Peter  Garrett.

Garrett is a highly credentialled candidate, despite the messy details over his irregular voting record. In addition to both academically-earned and honorary degrees, and the negotiating skills needed to head up the Australian Conservation Foundation, Garrett earlier showed the discipline necessary to direct a rock band that aimed for commercial success and a credible social message. As he says, he’s ‘ready to come into the mainstream’.

I met Peter Garrett a few years ago when he was the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation. We had come together to discuss his involvement in environmental issues for a book I was researching. Over more than an hour his fixity of purpose never wavered.

For one raised as a carefree, suburban Sydney boy, Garrett is living an extraordinarily charged and committed life. He seems to radiate moral principle, yet you feel he’s fighting for our values. It takes a certain bravery to match Garrett’s forceful oratory.

Garrett grew up in West Pymble in the 1950s, his family living on a block of land abutting the Lane Cove National Park. He remembers playing around the river, building rafts and dams, climbing trees, and listening to the sounds of wildlife as he lay in bed at night.

‘I became aware that nature has a kind of presence, an atmosphere. I have no fear or loathing of lying on the ground, of getting down among the insects, and I know the terrific freedom I was lucky enough to experience as a kid growing up around the bush.’

Garrett’s next lessons in respect for nature came from surfing and the excitement of interacting with what he describes as ‘a primordial energy’.

For a radical, Garrett leads a stable personal life, most likely a result of his committed Christianity. He studied Arts Law at ANU in the early 1970s, completing the degree at UNSW, he married in 1985, and has three children. Garrett resists attempts to pry into his family life, drawing a clear line between the personal and the public. The public side of his life seems to have been fully integrated, with music and environmental protests dovetailing into campaigns such as those to save Jabiluka in the Kakadu National Park.

‘My story is of a gradual, accidental, continual movement towards the place and the people in my life now. It was one decision after another, that we weren’t going to stand around any longer complaining about what we were doing to nature but, instead, try to do something about it.’

Midnight Oil started to do benefits for Greenpeace and other organisations on issues such as protection for the Antarctic and whales in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There was a link between the work the band was doing and its involvement in anti-nuclear campaigns and support for the Rainbow Warrior.

Garrett stood for the Senate as a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate in 1984 and although he was not elected he says the backing of green activists meant it was a tremendously successful public campaign in terms of awareness-raising. He says he was happy to act as a public speaker on environmental issues in Tasmania until his ‘use-by date’ ran out.

‘I thought it would be an occasional thing but I found myself getting drawn into the Lemonthyme campaign to the extent that eventually I accepted the invitation to become ACF President in 1989.’

He returned to the position for a second term because he believed Australia’s environment had deteriorated rapidly in the five years since he’d left, particularly with the Howard Government’s ‘totally inadequate response to the worsening problems’.

‘It’s a question of whether you buy into the myth of continuing economic growth and a wonderful future made out of ever-increasing piles of concrete. We’ve never bought into it. That’s not to say we’re nihilists, but we think sustainability is a sensible word with a lot going for it and it certainly offers more potential for creative, meaningful human endeavour than unrestrained global growth.’

Garrett cites the campaign in 1989 to save Jervis Bay from becoming a major naval installation, as a model for environmentalists. The campaign involved local people, including Aboriginal groups, working and middle-class Sydneysiders with weekenders in the area, and national organisations.

‘It was a multi-dimensional campaign. I didn’t have any personal attachment to Jervis Bay but I’d been there, surfed along the coast, and I thought the idea of a whole Navy infrastructure, with bomb storage facilities and a six-lane highway fairly obscene, and that it should be countered  on the grounds of ecological, cultural and recreational value.

‘Australia is a broadly middle-class country. One of its tragedies is that we haven’t secured agreement from the political parties to meaningfully look after the natural ecosystems. We’ve achieved a very qualified pale green approach, a problem compounded by living in a poll-driven system within the context of a scientifically-unarguable decline in the environment, such as in the state of the rivers.

‘Humans have always modified in some way their indigenous environment so to some extent the idea of a pure wilderness is a myth. Nevertheless the qualities inherent in nature—aesthetic, coherent and productive qualities—have been basic in forming human society and if we do away with that, we’re effectively consigning ourselves to a nasty, brutish future.

‘There are significant reasons why we need to care for the environment.  Never mind how many satellites we have in space, earth is the only fertile planet we know of and its fertility is not in a fixed state and we’re hacking off our own limbs when we hack into the earth. So it has a cosmological or spiritual component to it. People are happier and feel in control when they’re inhabiting a natural environment: I don’t mean living in caves; I mean streets with trees putting out some oxygen to feed the brain.’

But how do you get through to the numbers men who make things work?

‘You get through by doing what you can within your own sphere of influence in your own environment in your way with your own skills ... And you don’t give in. Individual citizens join up with other individual citizens and create movements and movements create change.

‘We have to live in balance with the earth. We’re torn between sensing this is true and the idea that the consumerist dream is going to make the nation great. It hasn’t quite happened yet but society is changing.

‘The signs of it are that there was no shortage of environmental dialogue over the first 50 years of Federation but there was little represented in the public domain. Now we’ve got environmental programs on radio and television, in private and public organisations, at local, state and federal levels of government.’
A pragmatist, Garrett brings esoteric theory down to earth.

‘It’s a mistake to think Australians are not a spiritual people, that their spirituality is not bound up with the land and the natural environment. People still rate national parks and a holiday in a beautiful, green, unspoilt place as highly valuable. It’s difficult to make simple statements about the complex responses people who live in urban environments have because we’re all faced with the way the world is and have to make the best of it. But all of us have the capacity to choose those things we value.’

Garrett sees an overland family trips during the summer holidays, as a big part of the Australian psyche.

‘Where I part ways with some environmentalists is that I have never taken the view that humans are the blight of the earth ... we’re giving the earth a beating, but we’re also going to be the ones that fix it up.

‘I hate the hypocrisy of governments paying lip service to the environment—in making promises and then not keeping them. The Natural Heritage Trust program that came about as result of the sale of Telstra was clearly a political way of buying off the green vote. The Howard Government had a great responsibility to ensure that those monies went towards real and significant environmental repair, and quite clearly that didn’t happen.’

Garrett has a great admiration for the late Nugget Coombs for his service to Australians in economics and administration, particularly to ‘the original Australians’ in the latter part of his life.

In 1992 Garrett gave a lecture on Coombs’ life, referring to his modesty, and the regard in which he was held by leaders on both sides of politics, from Menzies to Whitlam. He saw Coombs as a public servant and adviser who was prepared to speak his mind without fear or favour, citing his term as President of the ACF (1978–1980) as a period when it was unified and productive, and increased its ‘commitment to Aboriginal land rights’.

Clearly, for Garrett environmental and social issues are bound together. And for light relief there’s always some hard rock music in the background.

Dr Christine Williams, is a Sydney-based lecturer and writer. She is currently working on a book on environmentalists,



submit a comment

Similar Articles

A tale of two cities

  • Don Gazzard
  • 11 May 2006

Don Gazzard visits the national libraries of France and Britain.


Volatile democracy

  • Dewi Anggraeni
  • 11 May 2006

The forthcoming presidential elections in Indonesia are certain to surprise.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up