Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Peter Garrett speaks to Elizabeth Walton, pre politics

Peter Garrett speaks to Elizabeth Walton

The Interview: Power and Passion
Elizabeth Walton meets a man with a strong message for business.

Originally published in Tomorrow Magazine, Sweden.

Singer-song writer Peter Garrett has a reputation for hard-hitting lyrics. “Well, it happens to be an emergency” he sings, justifying his firebrand approach. As front man for rock band Midnight Oil, the activist’s message has pumped through the veins of rock fans since the 1970s. His repertoire now includes a song line for industry.

Garrett became President of Australia’s foremost environment group, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), in 1989. Leaving in 1993 to pursue commitments on the global rock touring circuit, he joined the International Board of Greenpeace, but resumed the ACF presidency in 1998. With a new director, Don Henry also on board, ACF’s new leadership duo faces the challenge of steering ACF back onto the center stage of Australian environmentalism.
Traditionally, ACF campaigns have centered on preserving wilderness areas like Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. But in the mid-1990s, ACF struck a rocky patch: membership declined; government subsidies were cut; and the group all but vanished from national debate. Now, “robust changes” instigated by Garrett’s team are nudging ACF towards government and industry, via what he describes as “significant institutional reform”.

The new look ACF accepts that the fight for environmental protection has moved from the forest-floor to the boardroom. Consequently, its campaign gambit now embraces sustainable cities, land care, and tax reform. “We’re deeply concerned about the view Australia took at Kyoto. We’re looking very closely at emissions trading—we don’t want to see it used as a way of transferring the burden to poorer countries,” Garrett says. ACF has waged an uphill battle for Australia to introduce eco-taxes and remove market incentives which reward polluters, like the diesel fuel excise. The tax reform issue clearly tries Garrett’s patience: “ACF’s struggle against the ample PR budgets of corporations” he declares, “makes the David and Goliath analogy sound weak”.

For now, Garrett has swapped his place on the world rock stage for a spell on the industry podium, rousing Australia’s main trade organization, the Australian Industry Group (AiG)—which counts among its members Australian manufacturing and mining giant BHP; petroleum refiners Mobil; Australian motor vehicle manufacturer General Motors Holden; and media conglomerate News Ltd.

Charged with charting a course towards sustainability, AiG’s National Environment Policy Group promotes the sharing of expertise and environmental best practice. Its invitation to Garrett to address its inaugural meeting proved a PR coup for both ACF and AiG. ACF grabbed a chance to petition industry—and the nation—over emissions trading, GMOs and tax reform; AiG seized the opportunity to convey a message of environmental concern and leadership to the community.

Predicting a rising tide of environmental awareness, Garrett warned: “Smart companies will get ahead of the wave. Those that don’t will be wiped out.” The event attracted national media coverage, and effectively launched the environment—and the ACF—back into national debate.

Since then, Garrett has continued to speak at AiG events—with impressive results. “Garrett speaks passionately, arousing a lot of nodding and agreement. There are those who are strongly against it, but we’re starting to regard ACF as a strategic partner,” says Greg Johannes, AiG’s Manager of Industry Policy.
It’s certainly a departure from rock’n’roll, but not one which is likely to dilute Garrett’s radical approach. “I resist—reject—the idea that there’s a continuum you move along from firebrand to moderate. Particularly the oversimplification—and I’ve seen it in Tomorrow Magazine—that NGOs and industry can merge and are walking towards one another.”

Establishing how intertwined NGOs can safely become with industry is no easy task. FOE’s Australian convener, Deitrich Willing, cautions against capture by corporations. NGOS who work with industry, he says, may be perceived as selling out in the long run. “Unless they can generate change that can be readily identified as having come from their involvement, they’re likely to be seen as having courted that sector in order to continue their own operations,” Willing warns.

Fending off external criticism is only half the battle. ACF’s long-held skepticism of industry has bred a large internal contingent that would rather not dabble with business dollars.

ACF’s most notable foray into working with industry was Di Dibley’s initiative, ForSITE (For Sustainable Industry and the Environment), which provided SME training sponsored by diversified manufacturer 3M. Dibley now works privately with industry and government and ACF has forsaken the Sustainable Industries Office she created. She is critical of ACF’s “lack of creativity in its approach to industry”, while ACF refuses to acknowledge the success of her enterprise—the first of its kind in Australia.

Whether Garrett can tame the white ants within ACF’s woodwork remains to be seen. His position is of continuing advocacy, direct action and taking a strong line with—not against—business. “We’re not embracing industry and saying it has the solutions…but we’re recognizing industry’s role in advancing the issues in a positive way. It’s our only hope for genuine—and I mean genuine—sustainability.”

According to former ACF staffer Rick Humphreys, now a director of the Wilderness Society, Garrett’s best asset is his ability to amplify the level of outrage at the state of the environment: “There is no-one else in the country articulating that vision—that the situation is urgent and we’d better get on with it.”

Greenpeace has now begun negotiating with AiG and other NGOs may follow. Says Greg Johannes: “The fact that ACF came to us may or may not have opened doors for other NGOs…but we now have an opportunity to pursue issues in common. It’s too soon to say whether any companies have been turned around. Changing attitudes is a long term project.”

AiG continues to engage Garrett because it wants members to hear what ACF has to say. Meanwhile meetings between the two parties continue, to explore areas of possible mutual interest.

Does Garrett believe industry’s attitude can change? “Industry can be a motor for change if it chooses to be. It is the greatest determiner of consumer and market behavior,” he says. It makes industry seem the ideal place for Garrett to focus his attention—especially in an emergency.

Elizabeth Walton is an Australian freelance writer.

“The fight for environmental protection has moved from the forest floor to the boardroom”

“We’re not embracing industry”

Rock ‘n’ roll star and ACF President Peter Garrett takes a strong line with—not against—business.

Vital Statistics

  • Born in Sydney, 1953.
  • Lives with German-born wife, Doris and three children in rural NSW.
  • Holds a law degree, but never practiced, joining Midnight Oil in 1976.
  • Pet issues: Midnight Oil played to Save the Whales in 1978 and raised money for indigenous people, homeless youth and the preservation of wilderness. Garrett has campaigned for nuclear disarmament and represented the Human Rights Foundation, among others.
  • Highest accolade: Listed by the National Trust as a ‘Living Treasure’.

Who’s Who of Australian Environment Groups (Australian membership figures)


  • 10,000 members, currently increasing.
  • Internationally, WWF collaborated with companies like Unilever to establish the Forest and Marine Stewardship Councils. Both are now being promoted locally by WWF
  • Australia
  • Around 5,000 members since inception.
  • Projects with industry have included Cathay Pacific’s injection of $2 million AU over five years, for revegetation of parrot habitats under flight paths.


  • 72,000 supporters, up from 50,000 in
  • Will work with industry on strategic issues, but its charter proscribes funding from government or industry sources. Campaigns like the Green Olympics initiative must be funded from general revenues.


  • 19,000 members, up from 14,000 in 1998.
  • 3M sponsored training for SMEs in mid 90’s. But, sums up marketing analyst Marcus Godinho: “We’re not a consultancy. We don’t give advice—we’re more interested in encouraging dialogue. We’re keen to work with industry, but you can’t be everything to everyone.”

Wilderness Society

  • 10,000 members, down from 15,000 in early 90’s.
  • Will work with industry, even when players don’t see eye to eye. Focuses on long term results. Is working with mining outfit ERA—a subsidiary of North, the largest wood chipper in the country—to protect Kakadu.


  • 3,000 members, up from 2,500 in mid 90’s.
  • Internationally, FOE is debating its stance on industry involvement. Northern hemisphere FOE groups are more reluctant than southerners. Claims Australian convener, Deitrich Willing: “I’ve yet to be shown that environment groups can’t be co-opted [by industry].”

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