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Federal

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.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

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.”

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190 comments

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

  1. Holden Back

    Should that be “democracy or Gunns”? Slightly, only slightly, less melodramatic.

  2. Freja

    Are you absolutely certain that the Greens are at the peak of their power? Sounds a little Andrew “Bob Brown’s decision to quit leaves the Australian Greens with nowhere to go but down” Boltish.

  3. David Hand

    Bob Brown can rightly be credited for his very good political leadership and spectacular success. Though some may argue that the hung parliament gave him an unprecidented opportunity, lesser politicians would not have capitalised on it with the skill and conviction that Brown used.

    He’s definitley not my cup of tea politically, but one has to acknowledge talent when one sees it.

  4. GeeWizz

    Worst time ever for him to leave, seriously.

    He’s effectively deputy Prime Minister of Australia and now he’s handing it over to Christine Milne who we have no idea will behave. Meanwhile in comes a Carbon Tax the Greens demanded Labor introduce within a few weeks and Labor are polling at disastrous levels and look to be wiped out politically across the nation.

    But then again why stick around to watch the mess you have created when you can retire on a big fat taxpayer funded salary?

  5. Michael de Angelos

    I predict greater support for the Greens federally and at state level in the coming years and the change to Christine Milne will give the party an extra boost. Milne is an intelligent and excellent media performer.

    One of the great disparities of our system is that the Greens fail to win lower house seats despite huge support. Evidneced by the ludicrous situation in QLD where a party can sweep the board with just 49% of the vote.

    It has always been a mystery to me why country people vote for a fool like Barnaby Joyce and his party which continually betray their interests when the Greens would be far better choice but as crikey correctly points out, Barnaby with his haysead act is treated seriously while the very moderate Greens have editorials written in the Australian saying they must be destroyed.

  6. GeeWizz

    Michael the problem with the Greens is that they like spending other peoples money.

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

  7. Filth Dimension

    Geewizz you are a sad individual and no doubt a wholly owned subsidiary of the whinging LNP. It’s always other peoples money.

  8. 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.

  9. Mike Flanagan

    A dam good article Bernard, obviously done under time and deadline pressure.
    Although Brown is not my political first choice, I do acknowledge, willingly, he has served this nation well throughout his tenure.

  10. Holden Back

    So, when Liberal Governmentss spend, what do they use for money- their own? Gosh.

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