From The Moshpit To The Backbench


Phillipe Sartorio is a huge Midnight Oil fan and has seen them play live 42 times. He was disillusioned when Peter Garrett entered politics. Like many other Oils fans, Sartorio had high hopes for his idol but was upset when the then Environment Minister approved a controversial desalination plant near his Gippsland home.

“With Pete's background, I thought he would have brought all that knowledge into Parliament and not go over the top. But it didn't happen.”

Last week, Garrett announced his exit from Parliament. “I will not come into the House and quote my own song lyrics. I have too much respect for what I did before to belittle it in any way,” he said in his valedictory speech.

This year, three other music industry heavyweights will contest the federal election, which will feature a significant number of high-profile celebrity candidates, from sporting heroes to rock stars.

Rose Tattoo's Angry Anderson, the pub rock hero turned anti-carbon tax campaigner, is the Nationals' candidate for Throsby. Golden Guitar great James Blundell is aiming for a Queensland Senate spot under Katter's Australia Party.

On the day Rudd took Gillard's job, Indigenous country singing-star, Warren H. Williams, was picked by the Greens for a Northern Territory Senate tilt.

However, former Redgum front-man and once Democrats candidate and Chief of Staff, John Schumann, warns that political success doesn't always follow success on the stage.

“I don't think being a celebrity on the country and western circuit and a Golden Guitar from Tamworth necessarily equips you for a career in politics. You won't be the front-man. You will be told what to say, how to say it and when to say it and that is quite different to being a musician,” he told New Matilda just hours before the leadership spill.

“I think a lot of them don't necessarily understand the differences between standing up and issuing an opinion from the platform of celebrity and working in Parliament. They are two completely different things as Garrett has found out to his disappointment and distress.”

When Garrett was preselected Schumann wrote him an open letter: “Mate Mate Mate: A letter to Comrade Garrett”. Politics is unlike the creative camaraderie that goes with singing in a rock band. “Your own worst enemies are always in your own party," he wrote.

Schumann, who penned the 1983 anti-war anthem I Was Only 19, still performs with his seven-piece outfit The Vagabond Crew with his mate from Redgum, Hugh McDonald. They are about to play to the Aussie troops in the Solomon Islands.

“It gives me no joy to say this because I know Peter to be decent, honourable and politically progressive, but I think he has been significantly diminished by his role in a demonstrably lacklustre administration.”

Ex-Oils guitarist and co-lyricist, Jim Moginie, said that Garrett faced the challenges that his fans expected.

“This is where he has got into trouble with people in that: 'You used to say this and now you say that',” he told the Australian Musician Network.

“Well, he's only saying that because he's a politician and he's in a party and if he wasn't in a party, then he could say whatever he liked, but he can't now, so he has to be bound by that. For anyone to think otherwise is incredibly naive. I love Peter and I think he's such a good person to have in there than some other dickhead — like someone who is a career  politician.”

“He isn't. He's someone who really cares about the country and he's trying to make a difference.”

Midnight Oil's management told New Matilda the band was unable to comment on any post-parliamentary music career for their former front-man.

Moginie knew that Angry Anderson had been dabbling with the idea of going into politics. “What is it with lead singers and politicians? The microphone and all that goes with it is what a lead singer is. All the time they have to connect to an audience. Maybe they're a different breed—lead singers to think they have the ability to communicate.”

Bandmate and drummer Rob Hirst was more critical in an interview with the author last year. “Many musicians and artistic types are sensitive little petals who don't have the thick skin needed to take the daily personal criticism one gets as a politician,” he told NM.

Politics is fine
If you wanna wreck your life
Politics is fine
When you've really lost your mind

Rob Hirst, Political Animal Ghostwriters 2007 (Sony)

Melbourne political folk singer, Penelope Swales is renowned for her left-leaning songwriting and activism. The Monash law graduate stood for The Greens in the 2010 Victorian election.

“I thought for a long time I'd go into politics and that's why I began taking a law degree. Certainly changing the world with a guitar was taking too long,” Swales told NM.

Swales, Hirst and Schumann all agree about about dealing with personal criticism. “I'm not sure I'd continue as a candidate. I got an insight into the hostile scrutiny of their private lives,” Swales says. “I wasn't sure I was really tough enough for that.”

Schumann is blunter: “You can also expect to have dipshit journalists trawling through the entrails of your life.”

While the Oils' and Redgum's back-catalogue swell with songs that rage against the machine, Schumann queries the political history of the current muso candidates.

“With great respect to Angry and Blundell, there is nothing really in either of their creative outputs or anything that they've said or done thus far that leads me to believe that they are any more equipped for a political career than the cab driver who drives them from the Canberra airport to their accommodation.”

Schumann also points out that Anderson and Blundell are evidence of creative people on the political right.

“There's John Williamson who's been very successful. But having been a cheerleader for the likes of John Laws, you could hardly say he’s the most progressive political figure God ever shovelled guts into. There's Mel Gibson and Ronald Reagan, the list goes on and on.”

He said that most Australians are politically unengaged and parties often use celebrity candidates to lure votes. “This particular election is going to be one of great turmoil. Although the overall outcome is predictable, there will be a lot of people disappointed in the ALP and looking for an excuse not to vote for the Coalition.”

“Celebrities give people who have no idea about politics a reason to put their vote somewhere.”

Meanwhile, Sartorio will be in the moshpit if the Oils tour again. “Maybe not front row, but a few rows back.”

But some of the lustre is gone. “The set list will be a bit shallow. Songs to do with oceans and the environment just don't rub me the right way any more.”

New Matilda approached Angry Anderson, James Blundell and Warren H. Willams for comment, but they were (most likely) rocking out and didn't reply before deadline.

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