From Rock Star to Politician: Inside the Peter Garrett Campaign

An article on Peter Garrett’s move to politics, including contributions from Mark Seymour.

Author: Kerry O’Brien.

Date: 14 October 2004.

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Article Text

Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Broadcast: 14/10/2004
From rock star to politician: inside the Peter Garrett campaign

Reporter: Kerry O’Brien

KERRY O’BRIEN: The Federal seat of Kingsford-Smith is home to two great Australian gateways — A stressed and hectic Sydney Airport — and the birth place of the modern nation, Botany Bay.

PETER GARRETT, LABOR MP KINGSFORD-SMITH: Good, I’m Peter Garrett, standing for Labor for Kingsford-Smith.

WOMAN: I know who you are.

KERRY O’BRIEN: It has also provided an important entree for one of the country’s most prominent and popular personalities.

It’s here that Peter Garrett made his now successful bid to enter Federal politics.

But it was not without its hiccups.

MAN: He needs to be here in his electorate that he hopes to be standing for, and he’s not.

KERRY O’BRIEN: And it’s not without concerns.

PHILLIP TOYNE, ENVIRONMENTALIST & FRIEND: It’s possible that this process could grind him down and spit him out.

KERRY O’BRIEN: The 7.30 Report went inside the Garrett campaign for what was a fiercely fought election to witness the transformation of rock star to Labor politician.

As you’ll see on this journey to election night the former Midnight Oil frontman and environmental frontliner doesn’t fit easily into a mould and that’s going to make his political career a compelling spectacle as ideology and Labor machinery grind uneasily.

STEPHEN SMITH, ALP CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: You might be a well regarded rock star entertainer but that counts for nothing first day you turn up at the Labor caucus.

PETER GARRETT: This is the meat, potatoes and the muesli of Australian political life in the 21st century.

KERRY O’BRIEN: The shallow man holds the seat by 2.1 per cent.

At the moment the swing there is 4.3 per cent.

With nearly 20 per cent of the vote counted across the State, Antony Green, what credence do we place in these figures at this stage.

ANTONY GREEN: Well, the difficulty is the swing in Tasmania that’s been affected by Mark Latham’s forest policy.

PETER GARRETT: I can’t really see clearly back at the present time to know whether he could have done some stuff better or not.

I’m sure there is things you could do better.

There always would be.

PHILLIP TOYNE: I think overall we probably have come up against too much of good economic times.

It’s a bit like the duck crossing the pond.

Smooth sailing on top and paddling like stink underneath and we have been.

PETER GARRETT: I also recognise that a great thing happens every three years in this country.

Despite the cynicism.

Despite the boredom, the complexity and diving into detail, despite people running their own agendas, the media, whatever, a great thing happens.

We all go out to vote.

We put our ideas up and we open ourselves up in faith to the Australian people making a decision about who they want to govern them and that’s ultimately a good thing.

PHILLIP TOYNE: Inevitably there will be people who think he’s done the wrong thing.

They’ll say it’s a sell-out to go into mainstream politics and I just totally disagree with it.

I believe that if there is no place for a Peter Garrett in there to make profound changes to the politics of Australia, then politics in Australia is doomed.

SIMON BALDERSTONE, CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Some of them might think I wore my Labor Party hat more than any other hat and dragged him into the party, but I mean, that’s patent rubbish.

You don’t drag Peter into anything.

MARK SEYMOUR, MUSICIAN & FRIEND: I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised when I heard that he was going to go into politics.

I always believed that that’s where he ultimately would get to.

JUANITA PHILLIPS, ABC NEWS READER: Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett has publicly accepted Mark Latham’s offer to run for Labor at the Federal election.

He’s now the ALP’s candidate for the safe Sydney seat of Kingsford-Smith.

TV ANNOUNCER: Peter Garrett’s announcement was difficult for anyone to avoid, even John Howard.

PETER GARRETT: Today, I’ve nailed my colours to the mast and it’s an important day for me, for Labor and I hope for the country.

MARK LATHAM:, OPPOSITION LEADER: Peter will be a tremendous asset to the Australian Labor Party.

He brings passion, conviction, energy, to our cause and that’s very important.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: We’ve obviously got to tread this fine line between time with Mark on announcements, time in marginal seats where Pete has obviously a high profile and can help support candidates in those seats.

And the time locally.

PETER GARRETT: Well, I’ve been in and out of Byron Bay as most musicians, you know, it’s one of the sort of ports of call really.

It’s holy ground for people when they travel between Sydney and Brisbane.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: Peter realises in his own way that he’s got such a high profile, that there’d be demands on him that other candidates wouldn’t face.

PETER GARRETT: We were invited to go up and spend some time with the candidate up there, Justin Elliott.

It was a good opportunity to get into a seat which is quite important, Richmond, and quite a close one in terms of its potential to change Government.

It’s all about being out and about with people which I really love.

It turned out that she was going to have a meeting at the pub before Rob Hurst and Paul Green, who sometimes go out as an act and make records together and sing together, were also going to appear there.

She said, “Will you get up and a have a sing with Rob and what will you do?

And I said, “I’ll ring him first, because we don’t want to jump in in the midst of something and rain on anyone’s parade, least of all a Midnight Oil colleague”, But we had a yarn and he said, “Look, why don’t you come and do a couple of songs.”

I said, “That would be nice.

It’ll probably be good at the end of the day to get on stage “and have a sing with a mate”.

Well of course, you know, I always forget a few lines here and there of the songs, but it actually felt terrific.

I wasn’t going to make a habit of it because I want to do the campaigning seriously.

MARK SEYMOUR: This was like three months of road life.

And there’s Peter Garrett outside the Exxon building in New York.

Midnight Oil and Hunters and Collectors had a close relationship which developed over quite a long period of time.

But I think it began when we supported them at the Kooyong Tennis Centre in ’83 and they were promoting their ’10 to 1′ album and eventually that sort of culminated in a world tour that we did with Midnight Oil right at the end of the ’80s.

PETER GARRETT: We come through the pub scene and were both bands that had really forged our careers playing in sweaty pubs.

They were guys that enjoyed a beer and talking about footy as well, so there was always lots of extra curricular going on.

MARK SEYMOUR: We did like a drink and we were notorious for drinking, Hunters and Collectors.

That was one of the things we noticed quite profoundly as the tour developed — that Midnight Oil were extremely professional and disciplined as far as that sort of thing was concerned.

PETER GARRETT: I feel a mighty sense of gratitude to have been in the ‘Oils.

And it will never be a distraction for me, because I love that band and what we did.

MARK SEYMOUR I probably felt in the early stages of knowing Peter, or getting to know Peter, that he seemed to good to be true.

But, look, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that I think there’s a public responsibility associated with being in the public eye and I think the way he handles it is extremely generous and that’s an innate gift that he has.


Peter Garrett, rock star, environmental campaigner, now on stage again.

This time, though, as Labor’s candidate for the Sydney seat of Kingsford-Smith.

Laurie Brereton’s old stronghold which covers Coogee, Maroubra, Malabar, Randwick, bits of Botany.

He joins me in the studio.

PETER GARRETT: Good morning, Mike.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Have you been behaving yourself?

PETER GARRETT: I’m trying.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Is there any resentment at the fact that you were parachuted into the seat over and above the hard-working locals who have been there a long time?

PETER GARRETT: No, in actual fact —


PETER GARRETT: Look, there was a bit of huffing and puffing for the first couple of days.

TV ANNOUNCER: Give it back, that’s just what rank and file Labor Party branch members in Kingsford-Smith are demanding as they try to shoot down Mr Latham’s push to parachute Mr Garrett into the safe Labor seat.

ALP MEMBER: We frankly do not need an ageing rocker with a few Green policies to come in and replace our local member.

ALP MEMBER #2: We won’t accept it gracefully.

You don’t pick the bloke just because he’s got good teeth or something.

STEPHEN SMITH: In public life, particularly in the Labor Party, you’re never going to get unanimous reviews.

There’s always going to be someone or some parts of the show thinking or speaking critically of you.

That’s just the way of the world.

Nothing you can do about that.

Just box on and get on with it.

PETER GARRETT: I thought I had a silent enrolment.

I have voted in previous elections, I have voted in referenda.

It certainly got more media scrutiny than I probably thought it would have and a bit of mischievous scrutiny which can kind of get you at times.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: But we learnt very quickly.

It was a bit too much.

We got chucked in at deep end with the electoral roll story.

PETER GARRETT: Look, I fell off the roll.

And when I found out I got back on and that’s the straight up and down answer to that question.

And I took responsibility for it.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: He thought as much.

But he’s now learnt first-hand that he has a very different relationship with the media now that he’s a political figure, rather than a rock’n’roll star.

PETER GARRETT: Well, here we are at the information office in Maroubra Road where the campaign’s being conducted.

So, a little guided tour for you.

Come on in and duck your head.

Full of people, usually volunteers who come in and help — Freda at the front desk today and she’ll smile at the camera, no.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: You learn your trade in our own community and I think he’s been very smart, very sensible in doing that first.

PETER GARRETT: Captured a little bit of our media around the place and just people throwing stuff up and we look at how we’re going along the way.

Sometimes they get it wrong.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: Look after home base first, make the adjustment to being a local Labor candidate, that’s the best way to learn your craft, to ply your trade.

PETER GARRETT: Kate, who works for us here as well, who’s constantly behind that important desk, in front of that even more important computer, next to an extremely important telephone.

It was a Thai restaurant, as you’ll see in a second.

Watch some of the wires that are hanging down here, as duck underneath, as we come through the kitchen, where we’ve got our stuff stored — all the leaflets have to go out, the material.

As you can see, we do it, yeah, it’s fairly modest in terms of what we can produce in food.

We manage to get a cup of tea organised for ourself.

So the Thai restaurant had an upstairs flat as well, which you can see through here.

We walk down the corridor and around the corner and of course my headquarters, so to speak, where I try and get the rest of my work done and occasionally I have meetings up here with people as well if we need to get away from the really noisy times, we try and do a bit of work up here.

This is the little hearth homeland of the information office.


PHILLIP TOYNE: Peter has been talking about entering politics for a number of years now.

He wanted to be a player, he didn’t want to be just a commentator.

So in many respects choosing the ALP was a logical choice for him.

MARK SEYMOUR: I know he must have deliberated heavily about it because he hasn’t always agreed with Labor policy in the past and I’ve had quite intense political discussions with him about past Australian prime ministers, especially Labor prime ministers.

PETER GARRETT: There’s a certain speed in election campaigns which you probably don’t appreciate until you’re in one.

If you’re well known and people in other parts of the country are running their campaigns, they’d like you to come, and I’ve accepted some of those invitations and hopefully I’ve been able to go out and give them some support.

We’re in inner city Melbourne, just coming to visit Michael Danby.


Someone’s just saying hello.

Fitzroy Street, St Kilda.

STEPHEN SMITH: He is a drawcard or he’s an important campaign asset because of his own personality and his own standing as a person in the community.

In the end, it’s about trying to win Government and you don’t win Government by having everyone staying in their own seats.

PETER GARRETT: That’s an issue that’s got really strong political prominence though, it’s going to play itself out in this campaign.

WOMAN: Mark Latham needs to bite the bullet on this because at the moment he’s been equivocal about it.

PETER GARRETT: You let ’em —

WOMAN: A lot of us are waiting.

PETER GARRETT: You let them make the decisions that he’s going to make when he makes them and I’ll do the same thing as well.

WOMAN: I know you’re on-side.

PHILLIP TOYNE: He sit there with the aspirations of many thousands of Australians sitting with him.

They believe that he’s their voice, that he’s going to be their champion for all of the issues that are of concern to them — reconciliation, environment, refugees, you name it and they think that Pete will be their champion and he certainly won’t be able to deliver on all of that.

PETER GARRETT: This is a great day for the Murray River system.

It’s the first time that a political party has stepped up to the mark to spend the money necessary to get the water flowing through the system and to bring this river back to life.

The thing about campaigning in this way is that it is infinitely challenging, extremely variable.

You have great moments where you reckon you’re getting on top of it and doing your job well.

Other days when you think you’ve completely lost the plot and things are going backwards.

There’s all this stuff swirling along outside you which is the leaders and what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis, which issues are taking prominence, but you’ve got your own seat as well and what’s going on there and sometimes they’re quite different, actually, what’s happening nationally and locally.

JOAN STAPLES, ‘SAVE BONDI BEACH’: Kingsford-Smith has some of Sydney’s biggest environmental problems.

The underground pollution is the biggest toxic threat that Sydney has ever faced.

There’s also a proposal to expand Port Botany which will severely impact on the environment of the Botany bay.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: Unfortunately, the only one who was invited that won’t be making it is Peter Garrett.

He had a long-time prior engagement and what annoyed me so much about that was that they’d known as soon as we got the invitation we declined and said, “No, he’s got an unbreakable prior commitment and if you move the date, we might be able to make it.”

WOMAN AT MEETING: If Peter Garrett was here, believe you me, I’d have the biggest possible go at him that I could, but I just can’t get to him at the moment.

OTHER WOMAN AT MEETING: This is crap, this is dead-set crap, and I told Peter Garrett, I will never vote Labor again.

This is how pissed off I am.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: It was a small earthquake, not many people killed and we went.

We handed out a letter, you know, campaign manager and Kate handed out a letter from Peter apologising for not being there.

MAN AT MEETING: We’re part of his proposed electorate, and yet he’s off swanning around Byron Bay, checking out the Murray, all worthy projects, but he needs to be here in his electorate that he hopes to be standing for and he’s not.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: I was just a bit annoyed that it was painted as Pete failing to meet a commitment or failing to turn up and that wasn’t the case at all.

JOAN STAPLES: At no time was there any suggestion that they would consider another date and that we should do that.

PETER GARRETT: Hi, I’m Peter Garrett and I’m standing for the Labor Party in this election.

I chose to develop —

Hi, I’m Peter Garrett and I’m standing for the Labor Party in this election.

I chose to join Mark Latham and Labor after working for many years on issues that meant a lot to me.

That’s why I’m running for Labor in this election, that’s why I’m voting Labor too, so let’s bring on the change.

Just nicked a line out of an ‘Oils song, but I’m sure my colleagues will forgive me.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: That paragraph about someone who you mixed up the party with Mark there.

PETER GARRETT: Yeah, I’m with you.

An inspiring leader.

There’s some demands on us to do some things, but we also want to continually make sure we have some time in Kingsford-Smith we’re getting out and connecting with the community here.

That’s been one of the dynamics of the campaign I think.

I’m starting to figure out the bits and pieces, little by little, bit by bit.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: I really felt it was time to do more.

PETER GARRETT: With very great pleasure, I cut the ribbon and we should fire up this fantastic water reticulation system that Coogee Bowling Club’s got in place and it’s a good sign of the future, of the good use of your own water, and saving yourselves some money as well.

Here we go.

There we go.


I mean, there may be an element of switching, hitting the switch to Vaudeville, I think, as PK said.

MAN: Mate, Kingsford-Smith is our Sydney area.

When you’re in that area you’ve gotta follow the Rabbits.

PETER GARRETT: It’s great to catch up with your wife.

I think for any would-be politician during an election campaign, if you can do it and have a little bit of social discussion and catch up on how the kids are going, then you take that opportunity and we did it at the Red and Green Ball.

It was good to be meeting people there and be yarning with her.

When we chat we’re not talking about the campaign, we’re talking about the domestics of family life.

It puts demands on family life for everybody involved, whoever they are, and it would be no different for us.

Listen, what about the final environment sheet.

I’ve not been involved in the business of sort of assessing and dealing with policy in a formal way at all.

I’ve made my views known and people would know what they are.

I want to see us protect high conservation value, old-growth forests in Tasmania and make sure that we’ve got sustainable employment for those communities in Tassie.

But the policy formulation and delivery is the carriage of the leader and the team that does it.

MARK LATHAM: This is the single biggest advance for the protection of the Tasmanian forests in living memory.

TV ANNOUNCER: As Mr Latham sneaked away from the Government offices via a rear exit, rather than face the protesters, because police couldn’t guarantee his safety, Mr McLean moved a resolution.

TASMANIAN LOGGER: We have no confidence in Mark Latham’s ability to lead this country.

PETER GARRETT: The workers endorsed it overwhelmingly, one shouting, “Where is the coward?”

I would like to see it come a bit earlier but in the breadth of a campaign things come in their order and that’s a decision that was made.

The policy is good, it stands and people still have the opportunity, even today, to wrap their head around what the fate of Tasmania’s forests will be if Mr Howard’s elected.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: I remain and the Commonwealth Government remains fully committed to the Regional Forest Agreement and to its processes.

SIMON BALDERSTONE: I’m not one for burning bridges but I find it quite amazing, ‘breathtaking’ would be a word, how some people who hold senior positions in the party, who hold actual offices in the Australian Labor Party, can get up and share a platform with the PM, can basically embrace him, can effectively tell people to vote against Labor with four days to go before an election.

How are you, John Howard.

How are you?

Good to see you.

Same people who when Mark announced that Peter was joining the Labor Party and would stand, they were the ones saying, “He won’t be able to toe the line, what are his Labor credentials, where’s his Labor loyalty?”

Some people have got to have a real good hard look at themselves now because it’s not Pete who’s had any trouble doing that.

PHILLIP TOYNE: I imagine Peter has been on the steepest learning curve of his life.

He has said to me on several occasions that he’s absolutely bamboozled by the machinations inside the Labor Party, and I think that’s only going to continue into the future.

PETER GARRETT: I’ve accepted all along and I think it’s a really important part of being in a political party that you argue very strongly for the things that you feel strongly about when there’s a debate or a decision to be made, that you make your presence felt and you take your view, and when it’s voted on, you accept the decision.

PHILLIP TOYNE: It’s possible that this process could grind him down and spit him out.

I mean, he could end up being a very disillusioned person as a result of it.

The ALP factions are not known for their soft cuddly relationships.

He’s not even in a faction.

He’s still got to make his way in that rough-and-tumble world, and I think it’s going to be really hard for him.

STEPHEN SMITH: Those people who come to politics with a pre-existing high profile or activity in another area, often have to make adjustments as well.

You might be a well-regarded rock star or entertainer, but that counts for nothing first day you turn up at the Labor caucus.

PHILLIP TOYNE: I can see him in the caucus room.

I can see him fighting a good fight in the caucus to try and win over the day.

I can see him being bitterly disappointed by some of the cynical outcomes that I think he’ll be confronted with there.

How do you actually win over people who aren’t interested in the broad principles, that is, the soaring rhetoric, they’re interested in deals and pragmatism, how is he going to cope with parliamentary processes, which are soul destroying and grind people down?

I don’t know how he’s going to deal with that.

Let’s go.

PETER GARRETT: And friends — this is only the beginning.

This is only the beginning.

Let’s hope that, that Labor has got re-charged vitality from the leader Mark Latham, Labor —

Just because you put on a suit and occasionally a tie and you join a political party and head down that path to seek to represent people, doesn’t mean that you change your character and your personality and your values.

So thank you very much for coming down tonight, thank you again.

Thank you.

You know, I’m really pleased to be able to sort of just keep moving and what I was and what I was and what I am is what I am and then this is the next one.

To me, it’s the culmination of many years of passionate interest in the political life of the country and for me, that was just a wonderful thing — to see my fellow Aussies, you know, jumping in and being a part of that process of wanting to help others and wanting to work constructively in campaigns.

REPORTER: Have you hit the wall?

PETER GARRETT: I think I’ve hit it right now and I’m just about to leave this building.

See you later.

This part of the journey is completed and Saturday morning comes and people go into the booths and then the decisions are made and then Saturday night you get a result and then on Sunday morning you wake up and get on with life.