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Former Midnight Oil Rocker Named Australia's Environment Minister

· Band used music to highlight green issues

Barbara McMahon

For 25 years Peter Garrett was the frontman of Midnight Oil, an Australian rock band known for its raucously loud music and protest songs about social and environmental issues. Then the bald 6ft 6in singer hung up his microphone, disbanded the group and exchanged his rock star clothes for the sombre suits of a politician.1130 06

After a meteoric rise through the ranks of Australia's Labor party, he was yesterday named environment minister in the newly elected government. The 54-year-old said he was "excited and humbled" by the opportunity.

However, his gaffes during the election have robbed him of the chance to take over the entire environment portfolio. Another minister has been given responsibility for the issues surrounding climate change, including negotiating a new post-Kyoto deal and establishing a carbon emissions trading scheme for Australia.

Garrett founded Midnight Oil when he was a law student in 1973 and made a first and unsuccessful foray into politics as a member of the Nuclear Disarmament party in 1984.

Passionate about the injustices meted out to Australia's indigenous population, he and the other band members had a worldwide hit in 1987 with the track Beds are Burning, a protest song about Aboriginal land rights in Australia.

The band also used music to register its anger about environmental issues, performing at the Jabiluka uranium mine in remote Arnhem Land and staging an impromptu concert outside Exxon's New York headquarters in 1990 with a banner that read: "Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick."

Alongside his singing career, Garrett also served as head of the Australian Conservation Foundation and sat on the international board of Greenpeace.

He disbanded Midnight Oil in 2002 to concentrate on politics and was elected to parliament two years later. An opposition spokesman on the arts and Aboriginal affairs, he was promoted last year to both the environment and climate change portfolio, attacking the then-prime minister John Howard's policies.

He has not had an easy ride, with colleagues in the conservation movement accusing him of selling out after he softened his public stance on issues such as uranium mining and old-growth logging, including supporting the construction of a controversial giant pulp mill in the Tamar Valley in Tasmania, bringing his views into line with Labor.

In July, he was at the centre of controversy when Daniel Johns, lead singer of the Australian band Silverchair, claimed in a radio interview that he and his wife Natalie Imbruglia, Garrett and U2 singer Bono smoked dope together at a house in Sydney. The media deluged the office of the rock star turned politician with inquiries about the incident and Johns quickly retracted the story, saying that it had been a "stupid joke".


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Garrett's spokesperson said that the incident did not take place.

The self-avowed Christian and father of three daughters had a high-profile role at the beginning of the recent election campaign.

Later, though, he shied away from the media after two blunders when he appeared unsure about the issues surrounding the Kyoto Protocol and when he reportedly told a radio talkshow host off the record that Labor would change some of its campaign promises once elected.

Garrett's minor portfolio, which also includes heritage and the arts, is being seen as a rebuke for those mistakes. However, the prime minister-elect, Kevin Rudd, has said the decision to split the environment portfolio between two ministers reflected the increased importance of issues such as global warming and renewable energy.

Another colourful Australian politician was promoted yesterday when former defence minister Brendan Nelson was elected leader of the Liberal party, replacing outgoing prime minister Howard.

The 49-year-old, who has been married three times, used to sport a diamond earring and is known for strumming guitar hits from The Animals after late-night parliamentary sessions. He was once a member of the Labor party but changed his affiliation.


The band was originally known as Farm when it was formed in 1973 but changed its name to Midnight Oil and collected a cult following of fans devoted to its semi punk rock sound.

It disbanded in 2002 but reformed three years later in a one-off event to play alongside other bands at Wave Aid, to raise money for the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster. In his maiden speech to parliament, Peter Garrett thanked the members of the band whom he described as "a bunch of students who set off to conquer the local pubs and then the world, with a handful of songs about Oz and a dream to have a go at making a living out of music that was not seen as commercial or likely to succeed". Albums include: Red Sails in the Sunset; 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1; Diesel and Dust; Blue Sky Mining and Redneck Wonderland. The documentary video Black Fella White Fella (1987) about the band's tour of indigenous communities with the Warumpi Band, which inspired the writing of the album Diesel and Dust, remains hugely popular in Australia. The Warumpi Band was formed in 1980 in Papunya, in the Northern Territory, by Neil Murray and they built up a loyal following in Sydney.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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