A warrior for the wilderness

Lenore Taylor -Apr 14, 2012

Campaigner to the end … Bob Brown at the 'Oura Oura' property which he handed over to Bush Heritage Australia.

Campaigner to the end … Bob Brown at the 'Oura Oura' property which he handed over to Bush Heritage Australia. Photo: Angela Wylie

It was the kind of civilised leadership transition no major party has pulled off in recent history - the popular long-serving leader stands down at a time of his own choosing ''to make way for new talent'' and his loyal deputy is unanimously elected in his place. No rancour. No back-stabbing. Plaudits all round.

But Bob Brown - the father of Australia's Greens - and its new federal leader Christine Milne have been tag-teaming like this through-out their careers. Brown the fearless trailblazer, Milne the organiser, the negotiator, the campaigner, not far behind.

They share a political goal - not to ''keep the bastards honest'' as the now-defunct Democrats sought to do, but to take the bastards' place. With nine Senate seats, one lower house seat, 11.8 per cent of the primary vote in 2010 and a consistent 12 per cent support in the published opinion polls, they are making good progress. They share a deep commitment to an ideology - that the economy and society must be managed in a way that is humane and sustainable.

But now it will be Milne's job to take the mission forward in dangerous times, as voters say they are disenchanted with minority government and the self-interest of both major parties dictates crushing the Greens. And she must hold her party together without the unifying presence of the elder statesman Brown.

The Greens are alive to the challenge. Bob Brown recently told an interviewer his most important achievement was ''the most cohesive and happy party room in the Parliament … it is strategically important because we are under relentless condemnation''.

Brown, now 67 years old, will be mentoring and advising. In fact, Milne said yesterday ''there would be panic if we thought he wasn't going to be involved around the country''.

But he and his partner of 16 years, Paul Thomas, will also be spending more time as a couple, bushwalking in their beloved Tasmanian wilderness.

''I am looking forward to him perhaps sharing a greater load of the household tasks,'' Thomas joked yesterday as he stood beside Brown and the rest of the Greens team at the press conference to announce his resignation, which despite long-standing speculation still came as a surprise to most of his colleagues.

''And just having time to share,'' Thomas added. (The couple have a home south of Hobart. They recently donated their cottage at Liffey, south of Launceston, and the land around it, to Bush Heritage Australia. It was where most of Brown's political campaigns were conceived.)

 

Always self-effacing and softly spoken but utterly courageous when it comes to his convictions, Bob Brown publicly declared his homosexuality way back in 1976, when being gay was still illegal in Tasmania.

Yesterday he said the abuse he had copped during his federal parliamentary career was ''small beer compared with what I copped in the 1980s in Tasmania as a gay member of Parliament''.

''You have to have broad shoulders … and of course we have our times when we might feel a bit put upon,'' said Brown. ''But if anyone asks me about tough times, just remember, we're not in Syria.''

Bob Brown studied medicine at Sydney University, practised in London (he was famously on duty the night Jimi Hendrix was brought in to hospital, too late to be saved) and moved to Tasmania in 1972.

He gave up his career as a doctor when he became involved in the Franklin River campaign. He was already part of the United Tasmania Group, the genesis of the world's first green party.

In 1983 he entered the Tasmanian Parliament (he took his seat the day after he got out of prison after a protest against the Franklin Dam). He was followed into State Parliament six years later by Christine Milne. In fact he handed over the leadership of the Tasmanian Greens to her when he made his first, unsuccessful, tilt at federal politics in 1993.

Throughout his career no foe has been too big or too powerful for Bob Brown to take on, and he has earned some ferocious enemies. He was both praised and condemned for interrupting President George Bush's speech to a joint sitting of Parliament in 2003 to protest about the imprisonment of two Australians, without charge, in Guantanamo Bay. He earned howls of outrage when he described News Ltd papers recently as ''the hate press'' and said they were ''doing a great disservice to the nation''. He decries the wealthy vested interests that he says have undermined our democracy.

For someone so outspoken he was slightly flummoxed yesterday when pressed about his legacy, pointing to his youthful team, and the role of the Greens as ''the centre of innovation in this parliament''.

Milne was more forthcoming, saying Brown had ''demonstrated you can have courage and integrity and values-based policies … to go out there and say the things that need to be said''.

As his successor, Milne signalled she would be taking on the biggest challenge of her political career in a similar way as she began it.

Milne was a schoolteacher and mother of two young sons in 1989 when the Canadian company Noranda proposed to build a pulpmill at Wesley Vale in Tasmania's fertile farming north-west where she lived.

With almost no resources she waged a 15-month campaign, building alliances with farmers and fishers and local companies until the plans were shelved.

Yesterday she said she aimed to overcome the misunderstandings between the Greens and rural Australia, where coal seam gas, foreign land ownership and biosecurity all offer opportunities for common cause.

''I intend to go out to rural and regional Australia - it has a critical role to play in terms of food security, renewable energy … I'm going out there as a country person to say to other country people it is time that the Greens and country people worked together … the Greens and the bush have misunderstood ourselves, and I want to put that right.''

She said she also wanted ''a more vigorous dialogue with progressive business''.

Milne dresses conservatively. She speaks passionately but without rancour. But she has also demonstrated she can drive a very hard bargain.

She conducted a complicated dual negotiation last year on the carbon package, selling the deal to the party's hardliners - even though there is no guarantee it will be any tougher in its ambition than the carbon pollution reduction scheme the Greens rejected in 2009 - but also winning a $10 billion clean energy finance corporation from the Gillard government to help make up for what she perceived as its deficiencies.

And while the government waxes and wanes in terms of how proudly it claims ownership of the deal, Christine Milne is clear. ''There is no doubt in my mind had there been a majority government of either Liberal or Labor persuasion we would not have a clean energy package for Australia,'' she said yesterday.

 

The Greens took a deliberate decision when they achieved balance of power to use it carefully. Milne in particular is a huge enthusiast for balance-of-power politics, saying it offers the chance to achieve things majority parliaments never could.

But the Greens have been pincered in recent years by the major parties attacking each other through attacking the Greens.

The Liberals target Labor for being ''hostage to Bob Brown'', who they say is ''the real prime minister'' and the ''green tail wagging the Labor dog''.

Labor, meanwhile, has been desperately differentiating itself and protecting its own left flank by agreeing with the Coalition that the Greens are indeed ''extreme'', even though Labor relies on Green votes to run its government. ''The Greens will never embrace Labor's delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love and family and nation,'' Julia Gillard said in a speech last year.

Milne was clear yesterday she expected nothing would change about the agreement with Labor that allowed Julia Gillard to form government.

For her part, Gillard praised Brown, but had a veiled warning for Milne, saying she expected the Greens would ''conduct themselves responsibly and reasonably, working with the government to achieve big changes for the Australian people including bringing the budget to surplus''.

And Tony Abbott stuck to his script about the pernicious influence of the Greens over Labor.

''I think that the deal with the Greens has been an enormous problem for Julia Gillard. I think all too often Bob Brown has looked like the real prime minister of this country. I think that Bob Brown has been a very strong force in Australian politics in recent years, I would say too strong a force.''

Milne will also have to manage internal tensions within the Greens about how far towards the centre of politics they should move and how centralised their organisation should become.

Organisationally, the Greens are still a federation of state-based parties that grew from very different traditions (the Tasmanians from the environment movement, the West Australians from the nuclear disarmament movement and the NSW party from the hardline left, still evident in some of the positions of the NSW Greens senator Lee Rhiannon).

And despite Brown's best efforts there is still no strong national structure, with revenue and information still held at state level and the federal party office only last year getting its first full-time organiser.

And despite the smooth leadership transition, many in the Greens team have ambition. In 2010 Milne easily won a challenge to her position as deputy leader from the ambitious newcomer Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who also failed to win the job yesterday. It went to the Greens' only lower house representative, Adam Bandt.

Working in Milne's favour is the fact that only three of the Greens' nine senators are up for re-election next year; Bob Brown's successor in Tasmania (he says the casual vacancy will be filled by June), Hanson-Young in South Australia and Scott Ludlam in Western Australia. In the other states the party has the chance to bolster its representation.

But after the next election Senator Milne could also have an Abbott government to contend with - elected with a mission of abolishing the mining tax that the Greens have supported, as well as their hard-fought carbon pricing regime.

''This is our opportunity to build on Bob Brown's legacy,'' Milne insisted yesterday.

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