Greg Bearup October 17, 2011
Bob Brown ... transformed the Tasmanian Greens, and then the Australian Greens, into an electoral power. Photo: Nic Walker
*Choose one: Courageous, Cunning, Principled, Dangerous, Pragmatic, Misunderstood.
This article was published in Good Weekend magazine
The woman stood in the house of Representatives to claim she had come to Canberra to bring some common sense as a "mother of four children, as a sole parent and as a businesswoman running a fish-and-chip shop". It was the afternoon of September 10, 1996, and Pauline Hanson, for better or for worse, was being hailed as the new force in Australian politics.
At the same time as Hanson wittered on about how good Aborigines in Australia had it, an openly gay man with no children stood in an almost empty Senate to deliver his vision. In his deep and reassuring voice, like rain on a tin roof, Bob Brown outlined the enormous challenges we faced living on a planet collapsing under the weight of human activity. "The future will either be green," he stated, "or not at all." Hanson's speech sparked a bushfire, while his was barely reported, and now all that remains of her is a charred stump.
It's the Greens, led by Brown, that are the new political reality in Australia, a seemingly permanent, menacing force for the once cosy two-party system, mauling Labor's left flank and gnawing away at softer morsels of conservative flesh. In 1996 fewer than 350,000 Australians voted Green in the Senate. By the last election, that had grown four-fold to almost 1.7 million votes, compared to 4.5 million for Labor and 4.9 million for the conservatives. The Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate with nine senators and a crucial seat in the lower house. And now each week that parliament sits, Bob Brown gets to plonk his sensible shoes beneath Prime Minister Julia Gillard's desk for a cup of tea and a chat about the direction of the nation.
"I am having a ball," says Brown, 66, as we talk in his Parliament House office. He's a man who often forgets to eat and so his face is all sinew and smile. "I am having too much fun to retire." He flippantly says that Rupert Murdoch - his nemesis - is somewhat of an icon, still going strong at 80.
You might need to get a younger boyfriend, to truly emulate Rupert, I say.
"Ha, ha," he bellows. "Ha. No, I am very happy with the one I've got, thank you very much."
By any reckoning his has been a remarkable life. He was born a twin, the shy son of a country policeman, who went to university to become a doctor. He moved to Tasmania in a mad search for the thylacine. As a 32-year-old doctor in conservative rural Tasmania, way back in 1976, when even Elton John had girlfriends, he publicly declared his homosexuality so others might be spared his "years of misery". He turned his back on a medical career to lead the seven-year campaign to save the Franklin River from being dammed. He was the driving force behind The Wilderness Society. He transformed the Tasmanian Greens, and then the Australian Greens, into an electoral power and has fostered new Green parties around the world. Along the way he has been bashed with a tyre lever, shot at and jailed. In 1990, he won a $50,000 environment prize and donated the money to save a patch of Tasmanian forest from loggers, and Bush Heritage Australia was born. The organisation has since raised more than $100 million to buy almost one million hectares of high-conservation-value private land in Australia.
The Canadian scientist and conservationist Dr David Suzuki describes Brown as a global treasure, up there with "Mandela and the Dalai Lama - a person of the greatest integrity and courage, a person who has inspired others through his lifetime commitment". Conversely, the Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce says behind Brown's public image as a "benevolent uncle" there's a "ruthless, pragmatic, artful politician", while the Liberal senator Eric Abetz says he wrecked the Tasmanian economy and is now causing the same havoc on the mainland.
There's venom in Abetz's voice when he talks of Brown. The veteran political commentator Alan Ramsay says this is typical, as Brown is widely loathed by politicians from both major parties. "He represents everything that they are not," Ramsay tells me. "He is a man of conviction, a thoroughly honest man, a man of principle. They see in him what they want to be and they hate him for it." Ramsay adds, "The big put-down is always, 'Oh, Bob Brown, he's too f...king good to be true.' They all want to find a dark corner there somewhere - well, there isn't any."
The Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan, a friend of Brown's, says that in 2004 he was on the election trail with both prime ministerial contenders, John Howard and Mark Latham. Along the way, he asked all the political staffers and journalists to tell him one positive human story about either man. He came away without a single anecdote. "It was at that point I sort of realised that people like Bob are not so common in politics," he says. "Bob is a man before he is a politician - he exists for other people. Like anyone who knows him, I can tell you dozens of lovely stories about him doing things for others ... Look at what he did for Nigel Brennan."
In 2008 Brennan, an Australian photographer, was kidnapped in Somalia along with a Canadian reporter, Amanda Lindhout. Almost a year later Brown heard through a journalist friend about the kidnapping and the family's desperate attempts to raise a ransom. He sought them out. The family had already contacted many of Australia's wealthiest people, but had been turned away. Brown tried the media giants - James Packer, Kerry Stokes and John Hartigan - to see if they'd help their stricken colleagues. Packer offered a small sum and said he'd ask 60 Minutes to do a story. Stokes was in London for the filming of Robin Hood and his staff said he couldn't be contacted. Hartigan, Brown says, was unmoved, and said to him, "Do you want me to pirouette on a sixpence?"
Brown's partner, Paul Thomas, owns a farm south of Hobart, and the senator was out in the paddocks one afternoon, chipping thistles, when there was a call on his mobile phone from Nigel Brennan's distraught mother. She desperately needed money to pay hostage negotiators - the situation for her son was rapidly deteriorating. After the call he mulled things over in his mind, hacking away at the burrs.
That night, after a meal of chops and vegies, as he and Thomas were standing at the sink doing the dishes, Brown explained the situation. "Paul," he said finally, "would you mind coming to the bank with me tomorrow to borrow $100,000?"
Thomas, a softly spoken, thoughtful man, tells me that at first he was reluctant and said he'd sleep on it: "I thought, 'Well, that'll blow the 10-year financial plan out to 20.'" By morning he'd come round, and the pair drove to Hobart and met with their bemused bank manager, extended their mortgage and transferred the money to the Brennans.
All this might have remained secret, but when Brennan was finally released, Dick Smith, who had also contributed money at the senator's urging, talked of Brown's generosity in an interview.
Bob Brown and I are on the way to Tasmania's magnificent and scarred Styx Valley in his parliamentary Prius when I mention what Thomas had told me. His face lights up. "I didn't think I could love that man any more," he beams. "But, gee, when he said yes to that loan ... well, what more could you want from a partner?"
Luckily for Brown the relationship is a good one, for it was a long time coming. It began, fittingly, with a bushwalk on the eve of the 1996 federal election. Brown was then 52 and Thomas was a campaign worker, 10 years his junior. After much trauma and soul-searching - including submitting himself to aversion therapy, during which he was wired to a machine that delivered electric shocks each time a picture of a nude man was shown in order to cure his "urges" - he had finally accepted he was gay and had come out to his friends and family 25 years earlier. Paul Thomas is his very first boyfriend. "He was a bit of a martyr to the cause," Thomas, 56, says drily. Thomas is from a fifth-generation Tasmanian farming family and says, "In this neck of the woods, telling people that I was having a relationship with Bob Brown was more of an ordeal than telling people I was gay."
Brown tells me that he always thought having a partner would be an impediment to public life - but it was the opposite and it gave him the support he needed to keep going. Paul, says Richard Flanagan, "liberated Brown from his sense of duty".
On the day that I was in Canberra his staff were enthralled by the latest episode of Craig Thomson and the Magic Union Pudding. As Sky News reported the besieged Labor MP's woes, Brown quietly slipped away into his office for 10 minutes. He emerged with an envelope. "My daily missive," he said. It was a letter to Paul. He sends one each day they are apart.
("Mostly they say he is looking forward to getting home," Thomas tells me. "He tells me how he's feeling and then there are little observations, like there was snow on the mountains as he flew over.")
At the heart of Brown is an angst and an optimism. He works his way through his turmoils, be it about his own sexuality or the future of the planet, as he has always done, by resolving to do something to somehow make it better.
His mother, Marjorie, the daughter of a dairy farmer, and his father, Jack, a policeman, were loving, caring people, and although he was close to them and his brothers and twin sister, he was also an outsider in the family. He was the dreamy kid who found solace wandering the bush or reading and remembering endless facts from encyclopaedias. "At a high-speed-rail conference the other day I could still rattle it all off: 'Sydney 1947, population 1.4 million, 24th biggest city in the world. Australia's population 7.7 million ...' "
His mother loved the bush and would gently scold the kids if they picked wildflowers, saying they looked better and would last longer where they were. Brown remembers his father as a straight-up-and-down country policeman who would storm home to fetch a coat and tie, incensed that a snooty magistrate had belittled a poor defendant for being improperly dressed.
Brown spent much of his youth in an excruciating internal battle with his sexuality. "I couldn't talk about it with anyone," he says. "Never." The family moved around rural NSW to wherever his father was posted: Oberon, Trunkey Creek, Armidale. Then, to add to the confusion, he was one of a group of boys who were fondled by a teacher at an Armidale primary school when he was 12. The police were called, the teacher was charged and, of course, everyone in town knew of the scandal. "My good, good parents," he says as we pass through a one-teacher village like those of his early years, "they didn't make a fuss. They didn't talk about it, but my father got a transfer and moved the family to Bellingen."
Judy Henderson, a life-long friend whom he met as a teenager, tells me that while Brown was very shy, he was a popular student and a good athlete and would befriend kids who were bullied. The pair would catch the train each day to high school in Coffs Harbour and would have long and earnest conversations about what they wanted to do with their lives. Brown, she says, always wanted to do something worthy and thought medicine would be a good way of helping others. She was unaware of his struggle with his sexuality, even at university. "It was a different age and something we'd never have conceived of," she says.
Several times he considered killing himself. "I remember walking down Parramatta Road to Sydney University and thinking, 'If I ever get out of this alive I am going to speak up about it,'" Brown says. He moved to London for a few years and talked to a counsellor who suggested that rather than trying to cure himself, he may be better off just accepting that he was gay. He worked through his angst and in 1976 gave an interview, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Tasmania, to The Examiner in Launceston under the headline Doctor Says He's Gay: "Many young people are going through a great deal of trauma over something for which they are not to blame," Dr Brown told the newspaper.
"I have seen such an immense change from the total repression and criminality of homosexuality in my lifetime," he explains now. "It does make me much more buoyant and optimistic about the future. If that change can occur in that time there's hope for many other changes."
He moved to Tasmania for a quiet life. He'd bought a little cottage out in the country at Liffey, south of Launceston, was working a few days a week as a doctor and wanted to spend his time bushwalking and writing philosophy. Then, in February 1976, a friend convinced him to take a two-week rafting trip down the remote and dangerous Franklin River. It was to change his life. He was overcome by the awesome beauty of the river, but devastated to find survey pegs along its banks revealing plans for it to be dammed. His concern mobilised him, and in turn tens of thousands of supporters, into action, and he dedicated seven years of his life to saving the river.
The Prius motors higher into the Styx Valley and we pass through a clear-felled logging area. The landscape looks like a World War I battlefield. Every living creature has been obliterated. He sighs deeply. "We are wrecking the planet, you know..." He rattles off a long list: extinct species, dead reefs, collapsed fisheries, polluted drinking water, acid oceans, plummeting krill stocks, melting ice caps, rising temperatures ...
Can it be saved? "I am very sanguine about it," he says cheerily. "We have the intelligence in the global community to work together to bring ourselves into check. The carbon tax is not going to stop us going beyond two degrees, but it is a step in the right direction ... and remember, there wouldn't be a carbon tax if it wasn't for us Greens."
I think Brown is probably the cleverest politician in Australia," says the Labor hard-man Graham Richardson, "and the thing that makes him even more dangerous is he is a decent fella and he believes in what he is doing, and that's a very powerful combination: belief and ability."
Brown's great political skill, says Dr Nick Economou, a lecturer in politics from Monash University, is that he has always been able to leverage enormous political advantage from a small political base. "Just think about it," Economou says; "who would have thought that a gay conservationist from Tasmania would become one of the most influential political figures in Australia?"
It began with the Franklin River campaign. In 1983 Brown met with the newly elected leader of the Labor Party, Bob Hawke. Brown told Hawke The Wilderness Society and his supporters would throw their weight behind Labor if Hawke would give a guarantee to stop the dam. It was thought this could make a difference to Labor's chances in one or two seats. "This was not some airy-fairy concept," Economou says. "It was a guarantee of support for action on a specific policy."
Brown operated in the same pragmatic way when the Greens went into a power-sharing agreement with Labor after the 1989 Tasmanian state election. And it is happening again now. The Greens agreed to support Julia Gillard's legislation through parliament if she agreed to a carbon tax.
"It is much harder to get Australia to extricate itself from [the] ANZUS [treaty], or to not sell uranium, to stop new coalmines, or not participate with the Americans on the War on Terror, or to change immigration policy," Economou says of some of the Green's broader aims. Brown shrewdly worked out his main goal and what could be achieved, a carbon tax, and it was on that issue that he signed a deal to support Gillard.
Phillip Toyne, the former head of the Australian Conservation Foundation, is a friend and admirer of Brown but says he can be too idealistic and dismissive of those who he feels have strayed from the true path. "He was extremely judgmental about Peter Garrett," Toyne tells me. "He thought Garrett had abandoned his principles by joining the ALP. Peter took the pragmatic decision that joining the ALP meant a ministry rather than being a minority commentator. Bob always took the view that he was not willing to compromise in that way." The once close friendship between Garrett and Brown has never recovered.
Garrett is whisper-faint in his praise and tells me that while Brown had made a "significant contribution" on environmental issues in earlier times, his efforts of late have been "more about cleverly riding the news cycle". He offers nothing more.
Toyne says the Greens' biggest challenge is to find a way to maintain a strong commitment to the environment while working out an intelligent way for the economy to operate. "Some of their earlier attempts to explain what Tasmania would look like without a timber industry were a bit naive and somewhat fanciful," he says. And while they have made great improvements in their
efforts to explain how a green economy would operate, "there's still a way to go".
The Murdoch empire argues there's more than just "a way to go". The Greens, Rupert Murdoch said when he jetted into Australia last year, were a threat to prosperity and, oddly, scarce resources. "Whatever you do, don't let the bloody Greens mess it up," he urged his former countrymen. The Australian newspaper encouraged its readers to "destroy the Greens at the ballot box ... they are bad for the nation" and their "flaky economics should have no place in the national debate".
When I ask Chris Mitchell, the editor of The Australian, why they are so dangerous, he tells me it's because they oppose developments and policies that would benefit the poor. He points to the Greens' opposition to development in Cape York and the Kimberley that, he says, would greatly benefit Aborigines. He says Gillard's carbon tax, "which our paper supported quite strongly", was hindered by the "$10-billion Greens package that got bolted on". The Greens insisted on the $10-billion fund to invest in clean and renewable energy that Mitchell says will go to projects such as "Cate Blanchett's $80,000 solar system at the Sydney Theatre Company". The Greens, Mitchell claims, are a "party for the post-materialist wealthy people happy to sacrifice the well-being of the least privileged people in Australia".
Robert Manne, in a critique of The Australian in the September issue of Quarterly Essay, writes that The Australian's coverage of Bob Brown and the Greens was unbalanced in the extreme and that the newspaper's attacks on the Greens amounted to a "jihad".
Brown tells me that a "Green economy wouldn't look all that different to what we see now". He continues, "We are for free enterprise, innovation and the individual's ability to contribute to the economy. What we are saying is let's gently brake and, if necessary, we are going to have to brake harder down the line." Would this mean a cap on the use of resources? "Well, the others have a cap on resources; their theory is, 'Let's use them to exhaustion and then move on to the next thing.'"
The big parties, he says, haven't realised that the debate is how we transition our economy to use fewer resources while maintaining our standard of living. "It is much the same as the formation of the Labor Party a century ago, when the debate was about a centralised economy or a market economy. The debate now is between an ecological politics and a rampaging, destructive politics as we head, full-steam, towards a brick wall."
This may be so, but Graham Richardson says Brown's big failing is that he has "an insatiable appetite". "I remember negotiating for three days about the Tasmanian forests and getting cabinet to agree," he says. "I came out and said to him, 'Bob, I got 23 per cent of Tasmania declared World Heritage, isn't that fantastic?' He just looked at me and said, 'It's not enough.'"
Bob Brown recently gave away his beloved cottage at Liffey and the land around it to Bush Heritage Australia. It was in that cottage that the Franklin River campaign was planned, where The Wilderness Society was born and where the Greens in Australia were conceived. It is also where he nursed both his mother and father to their deaths. Until he began his relationship, Liffey was his solace.
He and Paul Thomas have a small bush block on the water facing out to Bruny Island, south of Hobart, and have just finished building an eco-friendly house. There appears to be a degree of getting-things-in-order swirling about in Bob Brown's life.
I meet Thomas at a cafe in the village of Cygnet, not far from where they've built their house. He tells me that when Brown is home they spend a lot of time just enjoying the comfort of being together. "Neither of us are big talkers," he says. "Bob does a lot of reading and we go for long walks but there's not much chat." He says in all their time together they've never had a fight.
So when does he think Brown will retire? "Well, I would like him to retire tomorrow, if I was being selfish," he says, "so that we could spend more time together. But he has a job to do and he has to think of both himself and the party." And the planet? "Yes, and the planet."
Bob Brown may joke that he would like to emulate Rupert Murdoch and work until his 80s, but it seems unlikely. His current term is due to end in 2014 when he will be 69. And when he does go, even Paul Thomas concedes there will be "a period of adjustment".
Others think things will be more dramatic than mere adjustment. "Without Bob they are f...ked," says one long-time Canberra journalist. "You've got the old-style conservationists like Christine Milne. Then you have [Sarah] Hanson-Young with her gay-marriage thing. Then you've got that mad Lee Rhiannon - an old communist! Without Bob they'll self-implode." Graham Richardson says Milne - the 58-year-old environmentalist and former schoolteacher from Tasmania, and Brown's deputy and preferred successor - is competent but lacks his gravitas, and the "talent pool drops off pretty sharply after that".
Pundits compare the Greens to the Australian Democrats, a party fashioned around a strong, dynamic leader - Don Chipp - which shrivelled and died due to the weak leadership that followed. But Dr Narelle Miragliotta, a lecturer in politics from Monash University, says the Greens are in a better position than the Democrats ever were and have a strong presence in local and state governments, where candidates learn the art of campaigning and party politics and where future leaders are born. Richardson concedes Labor is losing a generation of talented and idealistic people to the Greens - people who, in the past, would have joined Labor.
Their rise has been a "slow burn", building year on year, says Miragliotta, and "their success can only be partly explained by Bob Brown". It is not just disillusionment with the major parties and admiration for Brown that has people voting Green, she says; a sizeable proportion of the population now believe that the Greens offer better policies.
The taciturn Labor senator John Faulkner tells me that he can't predict how the Greens will go post-Brown, but says they appear to be a permanent fixture. "For the first time since the existence of the Commonwealth of Australia, the Labor Party has found itself in a parliament where it has an electoral force on its left-wing flank and it appears to be quite a viable electoral force. That is a new thing for the Labor Party to grapple with." He is less willing to talk about the reasons for this.
Brown, of course, is positive about the future. He points out that the organisations he has moved on from - The Wilderness Society, the Tasmanian Greens, Bush Heritage - have all gone on to bigger and better things without him. Maybe it was him holding them back, he jokes.
"I am surrounded by terrific people," says Brown, between slowing down to point out red-breasted robins that dart about beside the road or Tasmanian rosellas high in the trees. "There are now 10 Green members of parliament. We have been sitting in on their maiden speeches and the quality of the speeches is just phenomenal. We are 10 people in a parliament of 226. We are producing outcomes that are much greater than our numbers."
We round a bend up a freshly cut track into the forest. The road comes to a halt in front of a stand of magnificent Eucalyptus regnans, the tallest of them possibly 70 metres high - the height of a 10-storey building and the width of a living room. "Get a load of it!" Brown says as we crane our necks to see the crown. "You know, these are among the biggest living things on the planet, ever. They are much bigger than dinosaurs and they're much bigger than whales. They're just so stunning."
And so doomed. This ancient coupe of forest has been earmarked for oblivion and yet again, four decades after he began, Bob Brown will be involved in a campaign to try to save it.
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