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Apr 13, 2012

Brown: our most successful third-party pollie

Bob Brown ends his long and successful parliamentary career with the Greens at the peak of their power. Christine Milne has been handed awesome responsibility.

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Bob Brown ends his long and successful parliamentary career with the Greens at the peak of their power.

The former medical practitioner has travelled the long journey from the United Tasmania Group, which won just under 4% of the vote in the 1972 state election, to leader of the party with the balance of power in the Senate, a deal with a minority government and a House of Representatives seat.

After a medical career, Brown served 10 years in the Tasmanian parliament (taking his seat the day after he was released from prison for protesting against the Franklin Dam) and, as he would do in the Senate, oversaw the rise of the Greens to balance-of-power status in Tasmania.

Brown entered the Senate in 1996 and was, from 1998 to 2001, the sole Greens representative (and parliament’s first openly gay member). A decade later, he leaves the Senate with nine Greens senators, after the Greens Senate vote reached 13% in 2010.

At a time when politics is increasingly professionalised and parties are pushing younger, less experienced people into senior positions, Brown was a traditional conviction politician, forthright in attacking the most sacred of cows in Australian public policy on economics, the media and foreign policy, including challenging George W. Bush when he addressed Parliament. He most recently attracted criticism for his now-famous “fellow earthians” speech arguing for a global parliamentary democracy.

What was missed by most commentators was that the speech was to a Greens party conference; when Barnaby Joyce plays to his party’s base it is seen as canny retail politics; when Brown did the same, it was “looney left” stuff.

A key challenge from the rise of the Greens to balance of power status (and the spread of Greens senators to all states) has been managing expectations from the party’s base — which varies significantly in different states, with the Australian Greens still notionally being a composite of separate state parties. But this was deftly managed in relation to the carbon price with Christine Milne convincing Labor to establish an all-party process to develop a package, enabling the Greens to shape the package from the outset, which led to a significant array of “direction action” measures, including a massive Clean Energy Finance Corporation investment vehicle.

The result is that, so far, the threat of alienating the party base through the necessary compromises that come from the balance of power has yet to eventuate. “I’ve always waited for a protest outside our window saying we’re too weak,” Brown told Crikey recently, “but I find myself in a situation where we’re taking a stronger stand on environmental issues than key mainstream long-established environment group — I never thought I’d find myself in that position.”

Despite media portrayals of him as a soft liberal, Brown’s early political experience was torrid.

“Twenty years ago I could not go up the street without getting abused,” he said. “Quite a lot of it was homophobic abuse, but it was coming out of the fact that I was an environmentalist, wanting to change the economic direction, the skill set and the employment base of this state … it was threatening, it was abusive, it was foul language, car windows down when people drove up the street … having the personal wherewithal to go through that sort of ever-present abuse … is a bit of a crucible for toughening up and a bit of a learning curve.

“But,” he added, “I’m not in Syria.” And, he says, now he has the opposite problem of being stopped by well wishers.

With the carbon pricing package about to start and the party at historic levels of strength federally, Brown leaves politics as the most successful non-major party politician of his generation, having twice built up a parliamentary third-party presence to balance-of-power levels.

Brown’s Tasmanian colleague Christine Milne will succeed Brown; like him, Milne has considerable state parliamentary experience and led the Tasmanian Greens in coalition with the Liberals in the 1990s (after succeeding Brown). It was Milne who drove the Greens’ involvement in the carbon pricing package.

But she is less of a party icon than Brown, and the Greens will be closely watched to see whether the leadership transition sees more fractures within a diverse party room and membership.

University of Tasmania economist Peter Whish-Wilson, who was second on the Greens Tasmanian Senate ticket at the 2010 election, is the likely replacement if he wants Brown’s spot; Whish-Wilson is highly regarded within the party.

Brown today rightly declared himself proud to be leaving the leadership of a growing party. But he is less optimistic about the overall direction of progressive politics currently.

Progressive politics, he told Crikey, is in a “stunning and very troubling retreat … it’s being totally eclipsed by the power of the corporations … I see this disconnect where people are so frustrated with politics generally that they don’t see that there’s any hope in the political arena whereas there is no hope anywhere else.

“The simplistic dictum I have is democracy or guns, take your pick, and if you’re gonna be in a community movement, you have to relate to the politicians.”

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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190 thoughts on “Brown: our most successful third-party pollie

  1. Frank Campbell

    Why would a star like Bob Brown leave his party of neophytes at this crucial point?

    Brown’s hubris after Abbott rolled Turnbull (echoed by most progressives and the media), in which he predicted the Greens would supplant Labour and progressive Tories in seats like Higgins would vote Green, has crumbled. He’s looked tired for months. Brown is too intelligent not to realise that he mistook an accident of history (Gillard and minority govt) for a worm-hole through political time: a unique opportunity to impose a carbon tax. A fatal temptation. The ALP is paying the price, but with Gillard gone and the ALP a rump, Labour will turn on the Greens. There are no carbon warriors among ex-union officials who, as it happens, sit in safe seats. The Greens will be lucky to maintain their 10% of the vote, as I’ve said here for the past two years.

    Milne is exactly the leader you don’t want. Sonorous, dignified Brown, forever a genuine hero of the Franklin and the forests, threw it all away on climate millenarianism. Milne is the shrill, rasping, cliched voice of the climate zealot- spruiking a cause which is already lost. Worse, neglecting the parlous state of the real environment now threatened by a resurgent Right.

    Milne has the poisoned chalice and will drain every drop.

    Milne will be dumped after the election (or leave a la Brown). Hanson-Young was checkmated by Brown’s tactical move this time, but it makes no difference who rules- no one will take the Greens seriously until they’ve liberated themselves from climate extremism.

  2. mikeb

    I well remember the incident, many years ago now, when BB was assaulted by red-neck loggers in an incident which made international news. We were in a quite crowded pub and the video news came on TV. A couple of yobs made loud comments along the lines of “ya…kill the p**fter”, or words to that effect. Thankfully most of those there went quiet and got a bit reflective at what they’d seen – a peaceful, fairly frail looking man being manhandled by big fat cowards. Fortunately a few people spoke up about what had happened, noting that it was not the Australian way to attack defenceless people with whom you disagree. I reckon 90% of people in that pub were not greens, but just about everyone agreed with that sentiment. I’m a Tasmanian so I’ve seen and heard a lot about BB and his politics and the way he has presented himself. AFAIK there has never been a shred of doubt that his integrity and honesty is untainted – which is a pretty big call in Tassie where the Laberals are all beholding to big business and vested interests. His leaving politics will leave a big hole in Australian politics. Unfortunately for Christine Milne, she is filling very big shoes. Also to her detriment is the fact that she is a woman with a voice that grates many (a bit like someone else). Although CM is enormously intelligent and talented with an equally unblemished political background, I can’t see her as being as effective as BB. I wish her luck however.

  3. shepherdmarilyn


    Here is a small aside – Jackson’s pay is $270,000 per annum + that volvo while she cries poor.

    Sarah Hanson-Young is not remotely radical.

    She is a good christian young woman raised in a small town on the banks of the Murray whose first job out of uni. was to work for a pittance at Amnesty international.

    I have known Sarah for the past 10 years and she has always been mature beyond her years and extremely sensible.

    It seems the tea party trolls think anyone left of Ghenghis Khan is some sort of ‘radical”.

    Name all her radical ideas.

    Come on trolls.

    Name them.

  4. Jolyon Wagg


    [When they start spending their own we might take them seriously.]

    Perhaps you should start now…


    And perhaps you could enlighten us as to your contributions to the public good.

    BTW, incessant grumpy and whining posts don’t count.

  5. DanBIllin

    Bob was a gun politician, he capitalised on any opportunity to strengthen his party and gain political power. He was very successful in pushing the Greens agenda, an astute negotiator.

    However, like most of our current crop, he was willing to pursue political goals over the national interest. Had the Greens stood up and passed the Rudd Government CPRS through the Senate, we’d be two years into a market based scheme right now. (Sure, it was a bit piss weak as far as policy goes, but over time, an inch becomes a mile.) Instead, on two separate occasions, his party blocked a major environmental policy initiative, choosing to cynically engineer and exploit its failure into electoral success, at the expense of the only major party willing to have a crack at reducing carbon pollution.

    Now, years on, we’re still waiting for the implementation of a carbon reduction scheme that is arguably no stronger than the original. Bob’s political skill was rewarded with a seat in the House of Reps and a good Senate showing to boot. Too bad for the environment though.

    I would also question the conviction politician plaudit, as it was never really tested as leader of the Greens. Any party that doesn’t hold Government doesn’t have to deliver on anything. From the cheap seats, it’s easy to deal in absolutes, never having to compromise with multiple stakeholders and powerful interests. It’s not a criticism of Bob, he can hardly be held responsible for a two party system, and he was never afraid of arrest like any good activist, but it needs to be considered in any fair appraisal of his legacy.

    All in all, Bob was a politician just like the rest of them. Albeit, a very good one. All the best to Bob in the next stage of his life.

  6. Radguy

    So David, you don’t think a rise of 3ºC will be a problem? Summer 2009 in Melbourne was not just horrible but was also dangerous enough to have doctors warning of serious health concerns. Go and do the experiment measuring optical properties of CO2 of different concentrations in air and report back. Or you could just accept what science concludes which is that CO2 acts like a pigment reflecting infrared light. How much pigment does it take to change the colour of paint? Very little. More particularly, how much pigment does it take to turn clear water opaque? This is the evidence skeptics and deniers seem unable to accept, yet they can’t disprove this scientifically.

    You also suggest that it is inconceivable that water flows in the Murray Darling basin could fall by 50%. Don’t you think that in normal drought times water flows are inadequate? I would not be placing my trust in anything your “scientific sources” postulate, I trust professionals.

    I am noticing a drop off in the southern oscillation index. I have also noticed over the past few weeks that the unusual pattern of moisture travelling from NW Australia -> inland seems to be stopping, and our normal weather pattern (drought) may be returning. A small increase in temps caused by excessive CO2 in the atmosphere will make the effects of drought much worse, unless you think that more heat is beneficial in a drought.

    I might conclude by mentioning that privatisation despite being politically appealing to laberals will prove to be responsible for much larger price hikes than the price on carbon. If this proves to be the case, how will the chit-chat at your meat raffles go SB?

  7. David Hand

    Where to start, where to start.

    Start with your arguments. You have decided I hold a view about something that my post did not say. A brighter person would at least understand my point and then shoot it full of holes. There are people who post here who are quite good at that. You have failed to understand the point I was making.

    Now to Clive Hamilton, member of the Greens and candidate for the lower house in Costello’s seat of Higgins in 2009. In a Brisbane sunday Courier opinion piece in 2007, he opined that action on climate change was so difficult that democratic processes may need to be suspended. Do you understand the implications of that? Since then, as he discovered that such opinions don’t get you elected, he has sought to tone his views down.

    In case you’re wondering, it is likely that the voters in Higgins who didn’t support him are not so much climate sceptics as lovers of democracy, universal suffrage and all that.

    In the same article he predicted a 50% fall in Murray Darling flows. This was the period when Flannery was saying Brisbane dams will never fill again and when the State government changed the operating model of the Wivenhoe dam from flood protection, the purpose of its construction after the 74 Brisbane floods to water supply. We all now know the folly of that.

    So the point I’m trying to make, and the only point, is that the lunatic fringe of climate activism is dominating policy development as we speak. All these people were saying that the weather of the day, no rain, was proof of climate change. Since it’s begun to rain, the language has subtely changed. In 2012, we now talk anot extreme weather events. I am absolutely sure that it doesn’t matter what weather event will actually occur, Flannery et al will say it proves climate change is real.

    It’s like the mobile phone salesman spruiking his servces. It doesn’t matter what your personal circumstances are, you absolutely must have his plan. There is no objectivity at all.

    None of these people are any more qualified than you or me to hold an opinion about what our climate will be like in 30 years. Neither Hamilton or Flannery are climate scientists and that’s what makes their potency so dangerous to the rest of us.

    Now the carbon tax. There are two significant problems with the carbon tax. Firstly it will have zero impact on global warming because 98% of emitters in the world won’t be paying it. So China, the USA, India and the rest will continue to pump the gas out there while sending their tax free products to Australia to undercut our own $23 per tonne paying industries.

    Secondly, so much of the tax is being handed back to the population that is has become a wealth redistribution tax that has a tenuous relationship at best with climate change. Now there’s nothing wrong with wealth redistribution but not this thing masquerading as action on carbon.

    A well constructed price on carbon will be much lower than $23 and there will be stuff all compensation so that the end users, us, pay the full amount.

  8. Radguy

    For painting you up as a denier, I’m sorry, my mistake. You are much more interesting.

    [I was thinking of Green party member rhetoric such as]

    After this you mention one (edit air biscuit originating from the brain) from one person and ascribe this comment to all others politically aligned to him. Pot, meet kettle.

    You then concede that he has thankfully toned down a bit. I would not ascribe to these views, but I’m not surprised that Clive Hamilton freaked out enough to make such a suggestion after reviewing James Hanson’s work. I doubt this view is what lost it for him in Higgins, which is probably the toffiest seat in Melbourne.

    [when Flannery was saying Brisbane dams will never fill again]

    He said may. Big difference. Thank’s to Bolt’s blog for this clarification. He also didn’t say that it won’t rain again. This would be an extremely knobby thing to say which would render his quals not worthy of the paper they’re printed on.
    He is a palaeontologist, so I reckon that he would have a pretty good idea about climate history, dare I say it, better than you or I, given that it relates directly to his field. You also directly refer to an article that identifies an expert who is making some pretty dire predictions. I’d say he definitely has a better idea than you or I, but you disagree with him (actually, you don’t even refer to him, just Clive).

    As for the masquerade you refer to, setting up renewable energy is no masquerade, in comparison to the conversion of coal stations to gas you mention. It is necessary to compensate low income earners and pensioners, given that they don’t really have enough money to spare. I’d say that the residents of Higgins do, and that they typically gross consumers of energy with a high proportion of large 4wd’s. Perhaps if we had implemented the original mining tax proposed by the Henry Tax Revue, there would not need to be so much wealth redistribution.

    Take a random member of the human race not from Australia. Ask which country should be first to take serious action on climate change. None would suggest their own, I’d say they would choose the wealthiest country. That’s us.
    Your reasoning would have no country acting ever. I would not dispute your points about competitiveness, which is why we need to work on other countries also take action.

  9. David Hand

    Hey Radguy,
    You make fair points. Applying the term “lunatic fringe” to people like Flannery diminishes the point I’m trying to make, but hey, a bit of hyperbole in the Crikey crypt never did anyone any harm.

    The issue that worries me is that climate science is an emerging thing and not even climate scientists understand it. The challenge we face as a society is this huge risk management decision about what to do in the face of climate change predictions. We don’t know what will happen in the next 20 years. We can only guess and the current consensus is not optimistic.

    The denialist fringe makes a lot of noise but they are mostly on the fringe. The Climate alarmist fringe however, is not on the fringe. They are at the very centre of policy development in our government processes and therefore much more denagerous.

    Their danger is not so much their commitment to action on climate change but their eagerness to go on TV and announce absolutist rhetoric that is later debunked by actual events. To illustrate what I mean, though you and Flannery may parse his statements at the height of the last El Nino drought with qualifications contained in what he actually said, there is absolutely no question that the agenda was to prepare Australia for a drying out. There was talk of limiting immigration due to lack of water. The government began to buy people out of the Murray Darling Basin. The Wivenhoe dam’s operating procedures were changed. Desalination plants were built.

    An enormous amount of policy change was enacted in the atmosphere of eternal drought created by respected climate spokespeople like Flannery. The La Nina period we are now in has therefore come as a surprise to a lot of people and has done a lot of unnecessary damage to Brisbane residents’ homes.

    The influence of people who are clearly making it up as they go along, changing their rhetoric to suit actual events but unwilling to rethink their fundamentalist beliefs is disturbing. They have a lot to answer for.

  10. David Hand

    Hey Radguy,
    You make fair points. Appl.ying the term “lunatic fringe” to people like Flannery diminishes the point I’m trying to make, but hey, a bit of hyperbole in the Crikey crypt never did anyone any harm.

    The issue that worries me is that cl.imate science is an emerging thing and not even cl.imate scientists understand it. The challenge we face as a society is this huge risk management decision about what to do in the face of cl.imate change predictions. We don’t know what will happen in the next 20 years. We can only guess and the current consensus is not optimistic.

    The denial.ist fringe makes a lot of noise but they are mostly on the fringe. The cl.imate alarmist fringe however, is not on the fringe. They are at the very centre of pol.icy development in our government processes and therefore much more dangerous.

    Their danger is not so much their commitment to action on cl.imate change but their eagerness to go on TV and announce absolutist rhetoric that is later debunked by actual events. To illustrate what I mean, though you and Flannery may parse his statements at the height of the last El Nino drought with qual.ifications contained in what he actuall.y said, there is absolutel.y no question that the agenda was to prepare Austral.ia for a drying out. There was talk of l.imiting immigration due to lack of water. The government began to buy people out of the Murray Darl.ing Basin. The Wivenhoe dam’s operating procedures were changed. Desal.ination plants were built.

    An enormous amount of pol.icy change was enacted in the atmosphere of eternal drought created by respected cl.imate spokespeople like Flannery. The La Nina period we are now in has therefore come as a surprise to a lot of people and has done a lot of unnecessary damage to Brisbane residents’ homes.

    The influence of people who are clearl.y making it up as they go along, changing their rhetoric to suit actual events but unwill.ing to rethink their fundamental.ist bel.iefs is disturbing. They have a lot to answer for.

  11. drsmithy

    With so many communists, ex communist, extreme looneys, the Greens are extreme left.

    Please highlight which of the Greens policies are “extreme left”, and why.

    On the quite well respected Political Compass, in 2010 the Greens came in as centre-left libertarians. The ALP and LNP come in at varying levels of authoritarian right.

    The Greens now occupy the same part of the political spectrum Labor did back in the ’80s and early ’90s.

  12. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Interesting new bit of denialist spin from Harry Rogers – that the younger scientists have a differing view from the old on this subject. Of course we will not get any evidence that this is the case. If there is a university anywhere in the world where the the young people who are doing their Masters or Doctorates in related areas have found a major flaw in the science, I would have expected that this would have been headline news.

    @MIKEB – Remember that SB is still insisting that all the scientists in EVERY country are only saying that climate change is true because they are told to, and she has failed to explain why the scientists supported climate change when Howard and Bush were in charge. You will never get her to admit that she is illogical, so don’t bother with her other claims.

    But the incredibly low intellectual quality of the Abbott supporters and the climate change deniers in the Crikey comments has got me thinking. Whilst the looney-illogical-right-wing-spin has worked in the Murdoch press, would it be effective with Crikey readers?

    I can’t imagine any Labor or Greens voter reading SB’s posts and changing their voting intentions. And I can’t imagine anyone who accepts the need for action on climate change reading a post by Frank Campbell, Harry Rogers, and the other deniers and changing their mind.

    But I can imagine a Liberal supporter who reads Crikey starting to question their support for the Liberals when all they read from Liberal supporters is the endless drivel from the regulars.

    And I can image someone who is genuinely unsure about climate change becoming someone who accepts climate change because the comments on Crikey show that the deniers have no consistent and logical rebuttal to the scientists.

    So perhaps SB and her ilk, and the climate change deniers, are achieving the opposite of what they intend 🙂

  13. supermundane

    Please don’t make a fool of yourself.

    I’m an Australian currently living in Norway and there have been no bailouts in Norway. As a high-taxing nation with strict-labour laws and protections, Norway is going gang-busters economically despite most of its major trading partners slipping into an ideologically-induced recession and it’s kronor rising significantly against other currencies making itæs exports less competitive.

    Ideological induced-recession in that the Eurozone is failed neoliberal experiment, consistent with the overall economic bent of both sides of Australian politics. what Australia has over the Eurozone (like Norway) is a sovereign currency and floating exchange (which incidentally renders all the debate on deficits nonsensical but that’s a point for another discussion.) However in essence the decision to impose monetary union over the member nations meant they abandoned floating exchange rates and under pressure from the dominant Germans, chose to eschew the creation of a federal-level fiscal authority (the equivalent of Australia’s Reserve Bank). It was borne of a flawed and ideological belief the self-regulating capacity of the markets over sovereign states.

    So we have the nonsensical situation of a common currency effectively rendering the member-states as foreign-currency users without an exchange rate and without the prospect of federal redistribution assistance in the face of asymmetrical and negative aggregate demand shocks. The states of the Eurozone have been reduced to the equivalent of our states without the system of redistribution that we have. States in Australia would have been bankrupt years ago if such a system in place across the Eurozone were enacted in Australia.

    When Germany as an economic powerhouse lost control of its exchange rates under the Maastricht Treaty, it instead resorted to manipulating other cost variables, specifically labour under what is known as the Hartz process. This involved wage suppression and casualisation. The cost of these neoliberal policies were to be borne by workers when in fact Germany’s success prior to the Euro lay in the high-wage, high-skills, extensive worker protections model which Norway also continues to pursue to this day. The lesson is that Germany’s model of economic success which existed prior to the implementation of the Eurozone in 2001 and is Norway’s current model for success goes against all the neoliberal posturing from the Coalition (and to a lesser extent Labor’s) on increased productivity (code for worker’s working more at on demand for less), reduced penalties, job security and conditions and so-called worker ‘flexibility’.

    Norway has eschewed the low-tax, reduced conditions model of it’s neighbours. Norway is currently experiencing significant growth levels in immigration from southern Europe as labour moves to meet demand; Norway simply can’t get enough people at the moment not merely despite but because of it’s high-wage, extensive worker protections and social welfare, and high-tax model.

    You need to be more careful Suzanne about the examples you cite before you go spouting nonsense.

  14. supermundane

    Suzanne Blake
    “What manufacturing is done in Norway these days?”

    Rather than continue to embarrass yourself why not first spare a moment to check your facts before posting?

    Not only does Norway pump copious quantities of oil and gas from the ground it’s also a leading developer and manufacturer of cutting-edge technologies involved in petroleum extraction, storage and distribution. Their competence, skill and specialist technologies in these fields are sought worldwide. Additionally, Norway’s energy sector is heavily involved in the development and manufacture of renewable energy technologies in the areas of hydro, solar and in the development and manufacture of cell technologies. A small but significant number of electric cars are manufactured here and a host of supporting industries have developed to buttress this sector.

    Norway is also heavily involved in the manufacture of finished and semi-finished metal products and is still a significant player in shipping (remember the Tampa?) and in shipbuilding. The Aker Group is involved in shipbuilding and other heavy manufacturing industries.

    Norway’s telecommunications sector, not least its major player Telenor, is a significant player in emerging markets, notably in the Indian subcontinent.

    The biotechnology sector is currently experiencing significant growth as is the microtechnology sector. Norway is a leading player in the development of silicon-based sensors fir example.

    Not bad for a country of 5 million. As Apoloo states, the manufacturing and R&D sectors account for close to 40 percent of Norway’s GDP.

  15. supermundane

    Essentially yes. It’s not perfect here by any stretch and Norway finds itself under pressure, like most western nations from low-skill, low-wage competition, from a high-kronor and from a significant downturn in its major trading partners but all in all it’s remarkably well. The government here invests heavily in joint-ventures with local industries or holds virtual monopolies of some sectors such oil extraction – consequently there are no oil billionaires here using their disproportionate wealth to pervert and influence policy. Indeed, donations to parties are strictly curtailed here in any case. Most oil and gas profits are invested into Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.

    And before Suzanne Blake claims (just to pre-emept her) that Norway can afford high-wages and an extensive welfare system because of it’s oil, present and future governments on all sides of politics are bound to spend no derive no more than 4 percent of the public sector budget from oil and gas revenues in any financial year. The bulk is invested – indeed the very platform of the populist/quasi-libertarian, anti-foreigner Fremskrittspartiet (of which Breivik was once a member) is to abolish this cap. As a consequences public sector spending is substantially financed elsewhere.

    It’s galling to witness the likes of SB make false claims and sprout economic nonsense. What I witness in my daily life here – a resoundly social democratic society demonstrably invalidates her arguments and ideological premise.

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