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News from Australia

Coogee, Peter Garrett and Valium Earrings

by VANESSA JONES

We enter winter–there’s frost on the ground. Deciduous leaves are scattered all around. It gets minus zero at night and winter hasn’t already begun. There’s still a drought. Water catchments are at record lows. The grass hasn’t needed mowing for 3 and a half months, as it grows so slowly. The more pedantic neighbors in the street mow weekly. Cutting at millimeters, rather than centimeters or inches. Just to get that smell of fuel. An Australian cultural addiction.

Some four bunny rabbits have been born. Someone was offering a pair of rabbits in a newspaper ad. Out came babies a couple of weeks later. They make love constantly on the lawn- the best biology lesson for kids- and such quick results! Maybe we’ll get the rabbits de-sexed and throw away the lawn mower.

The white Fantail pigeons are parading around the garden, bought from an Iraqi man on the other side of town. There are 3 more hens, for chook eggs for cinnamon muffins. Ground up cinnamon quills in the coffee grinder. So, what has changed?

Well, the big hoo-ha Down Under at the moment is about ex- rock singer Peter Garrett becoming a Labor Party candidate in the safe Labor Sydney seaside seat of "Kingsford Smith". Peter Garrett is the ex- frontman of the rock group "Midnight Oil". Garrett made his name on the type of left wing ideals which could now be read on most Greens websites, especially the Australian Greens. Now, daily in the media, we see him wearing a suit and tie. Calling himself a comrade of Labor Party politicians. Last week, the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, Mark Latham, announced out of towner, Garrett, as the candidate for this easy seat at the next upcoming federal election, bypassing normal local pre-selection processes. Within this expensive seaside seat, there are huge chunks of public housing. Apartment blocks and houses around South Coogee, Maroubra and La Perouse. Guaranteeing a continuous Labor victory. It is the area of the state <N.S.W>. Labor Leader’s own safe electoral seat. Enjoying the results of a socially engineered safe Labor seat. At least they engineered this safe Labor seat as a seaside one. Other public housing suburbs out West are a long train and bus ride from the sea. Mark Latham himself is a man who grew up in Western Sydney’s public housing.

So, when President Bush interfered in an unprecedented way in Australian domestic politics, 2 weeks ago, by labeling Labor leader Mark Latham’s commitment to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, if elected as P.M., as "disastrous", Latham, ex footballer, wasted no time in pulling the Garrett election ticket out of his magical electoral hat. Add a bit of celebrity- as much as Arnie is a Republican- Garrett is equally Left, and Latham creates his own political agenda, rather than just responding to Bush setting the anti-Latham media discussion agenda, while our P.M. was visiting Bush. Of course, Bush is petrified of Latham winning. And of Australia pulling out of Iraq, like Spain has. Bush attacked Latham at the end of one week, and by the next Monday morning, Garrett was in the media. Thanks to long time member for Kingsford Smith, Laurie Brereton, resigning a few days before, and discussing all this, surely, beforehand with Garrett. The retiring Laurie Brereton, to his credit, whilst in Opposition last year, made a speech to parliament, regarding the covering over of Picasso’s Guernica image, which is situated at the entry to the Security Council. Brereton, it is said, can also be credited with helping Latham get the numbers to be voted Labor leader. His departing gifts.

But, somehow, for me, as someone who has grown up with Peter Garrett the rock singer, this transition doesn’t wash. Not that I think he’d do a worse job than other politicians, but given the Green’s history, I would’ve thought he’d take an idealistic gamble and go Green, not Labor. But, then, I forget that Garrett, law student cum rock singer, ex head of the Australian Conservation Foundation, was probably always bound this way. Like a kangaroo hopping along one track knowing and thinking about where he’s going. Not taking hippy dippy, idealistic, self-sacrificing chances or compromises, which don’t guarantee success.

It was idealism and individualism that attracted me to Midnight Oil and their concerts, as a teenager, and I suppose, considering how well Garrett has done in his music career, I thought he could join the Greens and follow through with his idealism into his older age. (He’s 51.) Perhaps, as a teenager, I was naively swept up in that Green marketable product, within a whole lot of marketable products in music. Like how you find so many "feminists" in government bureaucracy and academia, with their "feminist" speak, just using it to go for that career promotion and nice salary package. As long as they’re doing well, career wise, out of it, the mouth’s on overdrive. Yet, if the funding or politics or position dries up, the eloquent voice quietens.

And it’s often the most privileged who drop the walk and the talk when the funds dry. Not because they’ve suddenly gone broke, but, because, baby, hey, you’ve gotta adapt.

And yet, from a pragmatic political perspective, if Garrett’s presence in the Labor party helps Latham create a Labor win, via "green" voters voting Labor, or giving their preferences to Labor, Garrett’s maneuver would have paid off. John Howard would be put out of power, after 7 years of power. Our environment, healthcare and educational systems might be saved from further deterioration, and our cultural autonomy might be protected. If Australian troops are pulled out of Iraq, it’d be worth it. Latham himself said he was "tickled pink" regarding Garrett’s move to join Labor. All those old Midnight Oil fans, now aged 30 to 50 years, perhaps raising families, paying off mortgages or trying to buy a home, concerned about the privatization of our healthcare and education. And perhaps some of the 60% of Australians who don’t want our soldiers belonging to a coalition of the killing.

I can’t write about Garrett’s transformation into the Labor Party without remembering my own youth. Somehow, Midnight Oil’s own lyrics are carried within my own vessel of a body- as I sing Midnight Oil’s old songs, I feel 13 or 15, as if I’m dancing, and my Mum’s saying "can you turn down that music or close the door". Of old friends and I wandering along in life. Trying to work out the meaning of the poetics of the lyrics. Our own culture splashed about in song and dance. Like seeing Judy Davis in "High Tide" (1987) or Colin Friels in "Malcolm" (1986).

Taping copies of Oil’s albums on trips to Sydney, in between swimming at Coogee or Bondi, and smuggling my mate’s puppy dog into her knapsack, onto the bus, so we could also take the dog to the beach. Sneaking into a nearby private school’s pool on a hot night, through a crack in the metal fence- swimming in the humid air, and meeting local boys there, by chance. Writing on the side of the copied "No Frills" cassette tape "10 to 1" in chunky bold letters. While my mate’s Mum called Duran Duran "Urine Urine", playing instead a record by David Bowie or The Warumpi Band. And laughing at the comedians "Tim and Debbie", while JJJ Youth radio (before funding cuts) used to play "The Gravy Bunch" take off of "The Brady Bunch", on the car radio, driving around Sydney. The Mum, wearing her Valium tablet earrings and bright pink plastic sandals. Taking us in a chunky old Kombi van to a play at The Australian Theatre For Young People. Seeing a slim, tall Nicole Kidman, aged about 16 or 17. Was it the play "The Night We Blitzed The Bridge"? While Wham!, Madonna, U2 , INXS, The Thompson Twins, Elton John, Madness, Michael Jackson, Boy George, Marilyn, Phil Collins, Spandau Ballet and Cindy Lauper played on the top 40′s and Countdown. Midnight Oil were a place of solace within all that. Until Aussie bands like Not Drowning, Waving, Yothu Yindi, The Go Betweens, Vince Jones and Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls, to name a few, came along.

Every culture exists within a context, and that, for me, was Midnight Oil’s. The Oils stood out from the imported music, which we, as citizens, were played, on radio and TV, and expected to consume.

Now, free trade deals with the U.S. look like stifling Australian cultural production. All those hard won progressions in film and locally produced TV. Depicting and viewing our own culture. All the skills and trades and employment and art within these industries. Our own cultural autonomy bargained away for our farmers’ trade benefits. The price of free trade. ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2985302.stm)

Musically, Garrett’s credibility could be considered a bit dubious-what gets teenagers and drunken Australians dancing is another issue. But as a singer/performer/dancer/dramatist, his dramatics are memorable. His sweaty, bald head, and frantic, gestural and stiff at the same time, hand movements. Think of Egyptian Pharonic profile paintings, mixed with Indonesian shadow puppets, moving frantically, then slowly. Add to that a bald headed, sweaty, very tall and angular man, strutting (or stepping sideways) across a stage with jerking, sweeping movements, singing/speaking/shouting/spitting into a microphone, and you might have it.

I saw Midnight Oil a few times, as a teenager. At the local leagues club. Twice at the Sydney Entertainment Center, with some male school mates (he had a lot of male fans) and a cousin of mine, backpacking from overseas. At that concert, I lost my cousin in the crowd, as the audience raised their hands in an "Oils" five finger, hand spread out kind of chant salute. (Not quite Hitleresque- more an expanded, sideways movement of the hand and arm!) And then, I saw my cousin appear on stage- jumping up and embracing Garrett. Then the security guys whisked him offstage.

Getting tickets at school to "The Oils" always meant negotiating with guys for tickets- for some reason other girls didn’t go. Didn’t even listen to them. Perhaps they liked the softer INXS, or Boy George. You’d have to negotiate with the person lining up all night in a sleeping bag for the tickets, to get you the ticket. Pay them beforehand. Then go down to Sydney on the train after school together, and return after midnight. On the last train carriage with the guard’s soft blue light on. Dire Straits, BB King, Sting, Cindy Lauper and U2 were all seen this way. This was the way you got out to see things. Otherwise, you’d just never get out of town. Another friend, from another state, said she’d gone to a concert, and her and her friends had grabbed part of Garrett’s white singlet. She kept the torn fragment in her wallet "the smell of sweat", she said, as she sniffed it through her nostrils. How impressionable people can be!

Once, Garrett came along in a helicopter, in 1989, to speak at a resident’s meeting. Local people who were taking on a nearby chemical development. The organizers knew he was a drawcard, and he did pull a crowd. And the locals eventually won that campaign. Clean air guaranteed for current and future generations.

At another time, in 1989, he made it down to the south eastern <N.S.W>. forests, and spoke to people demonstrating against the woodchipping of native forests. (A freezing cold winter experience, in tents with outside loos and a vomit bug circulating.) Australian forests cut up into little pieces and shipped off overseas, to Japan, to be made into paper. Or toilet paper. And then sold back to Australians. Such a clever country.

I remember staying in a Parisian apartment, and, over the roses in the garden bed, between each of the buildings, came Midnight Oil’s music, wafting, drifting across the lawn. Someone was playing that music, and listening to it, a world away from where it’d been created. I wanted to listen more, but the music stopped, and I had no way of knowing which apartment it came from. Nostalgia complete. Sea air, beaches, gum trees, the Hawkesbury River, youth. At times like that, memory is selective. Intoxicatingly. That was in the early 1990s.

In 1995, I went along to a Greenpeace fundraiser at The Harold Park Hotel in Glebe, Sydney, and heard Garrett speak against French Nuclear Testing in the Pacific. An acquaintance had rung up and hassled me to go along. Garrett was a moderate speaker but he did attract a crowd.

Sitting on the sand at Coogee Beach, while the French nuclear tests were going on, looking out to the horizon. A bleak experience. Water I’d spent so much time immersed in, diving through, floating within.

In many ways, Labor leader Latham, and Garrett, would be a nationalistic and powerful pair. The type of politicians, who, in "third world" countries, might end up assassinated by masked global leaderships. But, as Garrett used to sing "What can I do/ There must be some solution".

It was interesting to read in The Canberra Times on June 12, 2004, an article by Ross Peake, which discussed Garrett’s character with one of Garrett’s former political rivals. Michael Denborough, the founder of the Nuclear Disarmament Party, which Garrett had been a candidate for in 1984, described Garrett as "enormously egotistical". Denborough alleged that Garrett stacked the branch in order to take the number one place on the unsuccessful Senate ticket, instead of party founder, Denborough. As Denborough states: "…he wanted to be number one so he stacked the branch with Socialist Workers Party Trotskyites and got what he wanted". Perhaps this tells you something of the way Garrett lives his life- he’ll be on a team as long as he’s the front man, the lead singer, the first on the senate ticket, the Head of a conservation group, a Labor Party guy as long as he’ll win a safe seat. Compromise the team’s feelings as long as you win and you get the best deal. Some could say a natural leader and spokesperson. If "leadership" is considered domination, and not consideration for the whole group. Or do most leaders step on the small fry to get access to "benefiting" the whole group? Others might say it’s enough to turn anyone off any type of political group or "ism". The local Labor party members of Kingsford Smith electorate were pretty angry when a wealthy rock singer was put into such a safe Labor seat, by the national leader, with little lived knowledge of local issues. While other locals had sweated for years, for the local branch, handing out party leaflets and attending local meetings.

I would’ve preferred to see Garrett stand for the Greens. The sweaty glow 1980s memory of him might’ve stayed for me. It would’ve somehow kept his marginal, yet critical voice alive. Not drowned out by the Labor party machine. I am reluctant to hear Garrett as a voice of pragmatic compromise. He’s already back-pedaled on Pine Gap, saying Pine Gap should stay. Is this the real Garrett- or is this pre-election PR mainstreaming? A way of avoiding anymore of Bush’s agenda setting? Just as Latham is doing a good job of cooling his tongue, perhaps Garrett has also been instructed this way. Wear a suit and tie. Appeal to the vast majority. Normalize behavior. Or perhaps his dramatic musical persona and ideas were just an exaggeration of his normality.

But, it’s also good to see Garrett unmasked- to see him as a pragmatic operator- take off the bald sweaty mask, and see how people operate, either for their own career, or for the benefit of a nation and its environment. Time will show what kind of man Garrett is, and what kind of politician he will make. And whether choosing Labor over the Greens will help or hinder him, and the future of this nation.

If Labor does win, later this year, it’ll be interesting to see what President Bush has to say to Latham and Garrett. Or maybe Bush won’t be in power to talk. Perhaps my teenage optimism hasn’t waned.

VANESSA JONES lives in Australia and can be contacted on post4@bigpond.com.au.