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Ex-activist rocker navigates Australia's changing political climate

Australia's environment minister, and former Midnight Oil singer, Peter Garrett with his wife, Doris. Australia's environment minister, and former Midnight Oil singer, Peter Garrett with his wife, Doris. (mark graham/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Meraiah Foley
Associated Press / December 29, 2007

SYDNEY - The music of Peter Garrett has always been politically charged. Now the towering, baldheaded former singer of Midnight Oil is charged with practicing politics - as Australia's new environment minister.

Garrett founded the band when he was a law student in 1973, but the semi-punk group did not achieve global fame until its 1987 track "Beds are Burning," a protest song about Aboriginal land rights in Australia. With his wild dancing and strident voice, Garrett became one of Australia's most recognizable singers until the band broke up in 2002.

A longtime environmental campaigner and advocate for Aboriginal rights, Garrett made his first foray into politics with an unsuccessful bid for the Senate as a member of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984.

Alongside his singing career, Garrett also served as head of the Australian Conservation Foundation during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and sat on the international board of the environmental group Greenpeace.

The 6-foot-6-inch singer disbanded Midnight Oil to focus on his political career. He was elected to Parliament two years later and enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Labor Party ranks, being immediately appointed as an opposition spokesman on the arts and Aboriginal affairs.

In December last year, Garrett was promoted to lead Labor's attack on then-Prime Minister John Howard's environment policies. But his high profile came with its own baggage.

Many former colleagues in the conservation movement accused him of selling out by softening his public stance on issues such as uranium mining and old-growth logging in line with Labor policies. Garrett has said that being a member of a major party is the best way to affect change, compromises notwithstanding.

"I want to seriously serve the Labor Party - it makes people spit out their cornflakes, but it's true," Garrett told The Bulletin magazine in a 2005 interview.

Late last month, Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd appointed Garrett to be the environment minister in his new Cabinet, but appointed a second minister, Senator Penny Wong, to take responsibility for climate change.

The move is widely considered a demotion for Garrett, who served as the opposition spokesman for both the environment and climate change prior to the election.

Rudd said the decision to split the environment portfolio among two ministers reflected the increased importance of issues such as global warming and renewable energy. Both Garrett and Wong are to accompany Rudd to the next United Nations climate change meeting in Bali, Indonesia, next month.

Nevertheless, many analysts see the decision as a rebuke to Garrett, who made a series of gaffes during the campaign, including reportedly telling a radio talk show host off-record that Labor planned to renege on a number of campaign promises once elected.

Garrett has said he was joking, and that his remarks were taken out of context. He did not immediately comment on his appointment Thursday.

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