Twenty years ago it happened. Well, 20 years and two weeks to be precise, May 30, 1990, at lunch time. On Sixth Avenue New York a flatbed truck pulled up outside the headquarters for Exxon Oil and five men got out.

A year before an oil tanker owned by Exxon Oil, the Exxon Valdez, struck a reef off Alaska and spilled 41 million litres of oil along 2100 kilometres of coastline in Prince William Sound. It was, at the time, the largest oil spill in US waters and Exxon was widely criticised for not doing enough to clean up the spill or to compensate the victims of the disaster.

The five men were the members of Midnight Oil. They jumped onto the back of the parked truck, plugged in their equipment and played an impromptu hour-long set to a stunned crowd. The police stood back not knowing what to do, the lunchtime workers danced and sang. Between songs Peter Garrett launched diatribes at the Exxon executives holed up across the road and the images were beamed around the world. It was audacious guerrilla action and perhaps the largest act of monkey wrenching the musical world has ever seen. Midnight Oil, the Antipodean agitators pointing the fingers at the powers that be.


Now, let’s jump forward 20 years — give or take a few weeks — and take a look at two events that have just occurred, yet are closely related to the surprise gig of 1990.

The first is, of course, the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. An oil rig operated by British Petroleum exploded on April 20 and the well is spilling oil into the sea at the rate of 11 million litres per day. Within five days it had surpassed the Exxon Valdez incident as the worst spill in US waters. It’s been 55 days and the spill rate is not easing, dwarfing it’s predecessor in terms of volume and spread.

Oil has now washed ashore on the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and authorities are worried that it will reach the environmentally sensitive Florida Keys. It’s a dire scenario, yet with no solution forthcoming it’s one that seems all too likely to occur.

The second event is that our federal government, of which Peter Garrett is now a minister, has approved oil exploration leases off the south-west coast of Western Australia, in regions that Garrett himself flagged as marine reserves only months before. Western Australia had an oil leak recently when the Montara oil platform leaked into the Timor Sea. If that leak were to happen within the new areas of exploration, there would be oil making landfall from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturaliste. Picture the images you are presently seeing on the nightly news and give them a domestic twist.

It pains me to see that Garrett, the one standing on the back of the flatbed truck inspiring the masses, and this Garrett, ideologically neutered and politically compromised. It’s tragic, yet I don’t blame him — the artist has liberty while the politician only accountability. But still, I think people have a right to ask what happened; he promised so much yet delivered so little. What happened?

But there’s another question and, considering the BP oil spill, it is equally pertinent: where is the next Midnight Oil? Where are the intelligent and socially aware music acts able, as Midnight Oil were, to unite and inspire? Where are the people willing to take a risk and use their position to protest publicly?

Because there’s a pipe leaking in the Gulf and an empty parking space in front of BP’s world headquarters.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey