Exit Bob Brown.
The departing leader of the Australian Greens is a giant of this country’s environmental movement. He’s the founder of one of the oldest green parties anywhere in the world, and a seasoned campaigner and parliamentarian who has spent a generation serving the people of his state in both the Tasmanian and Australian Parliaments.
Say goodbye to one of Australia’s most experienced parliamentarians, and one of our most savvy. Brown is often a figure of hate or ridicule for conservatives, but he is equally held in the highest esteem by most in the environmental movement. He leaves having almost single-handedly built the Greens up from the most minor of minor parties to a genuine third force in Australian politics. At the 2010 election the Greens secured the balance of power in both the lower and upper houses by winning a big increase in their popular vote. That win them a new cohort of Senators, including in states like Queensland where they had never won federal office before.
Brown used the balance of power to cleverly manoeuvre Julia Gillard into committing to something she had ruled out at the 2010 election: a carbon tax. The result is the carbon tax that will be introduced on 1 July. Australia’s historic move to price carbon pollution is in no small part due to the decades of hard work and the effortless personal charisma of Bob Brown. In many ways, Brown is going out on top.
Brown has racked up his considerable achievements while staying unusually committed to his core principles, rarely having compromised, and conducting himself with a decency and courtesy sadly rare in modern politics. Australian public life will be poorer for his departure.
For the Greens, this is a moment of some significance — perhaps even a hinge on which the party’s short-term destiny may turn. At 67, Brown can be forgiven for hanging up his parliamentary hat and heading off to the Tasmanian forests for some hiking. But these are perilous time for his party, which is widely loathed in the electorate (not least within Labor itself) for its role in driving Gillard and Labor towards action on carbon.
Unlike the Democrats, who colluded with John Howard to introduce the GST against the wishes of most of their voters, the Greens’ rank and file are certainly in favour of the carbon tax.
But the broader electorate remains suspicious of the Greens. The Greens occupy the left-most 11 per cent of the political spectrum, which places them far to the left of the average swinging voter. It guarantees ruthless hostility from those on the right: the shock jocks, big business, and all who favour the rule of markets over the safeguarding of the environment.
Should conditions transpire to produce an Abbott landslide next year, the Greens may well go backwards in the popular vote. Given that, the Greens could well finish the 2013 election in worse shape electorally; and they will also lose the leverage of a minority Labor government. It is entirely possible the party might lose the balance of power in the Senate to a triumphant Coalition. One thing that is almost certain is that Adam Bandt, their lower house member, will lose — all it will take is for the Coalition to preference Labor, which looks a sure bet.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Greens will struggle without their charismatic leader. But there is no doubt that Christine Milne lacks some of the avuncular charm of her predecessor. Milne is tough and street-wise, schooled in the bitter politics of the Tasmanian forestry debate, and, like Brown, a veteran of the three-cornered political system in Tasmanian parliament. She is also one of the sharpest policy minds in federal politics in any party. The carbon tax is as much Milne’s achievement as Brown’s, for instance.
But can Christine Milne reach out beyond the Greens’ base, to the softer, light-green voters in the inner-city seats that the Greens need to win and keep if they are to grow as a party? We don’t yet know. Nor can we forecast the internal political dynamics inside the party. Sarah Hanson-Young has already run against Milne once, in a move that has reportedly created considerable tension between the young South Australian and the new leader. Few can doubt that the ambitious Hanson-Young covets the leadership. But there are other candidates with ambitions, such as Larissa Waters, and perhaps Scott Ludlam, who has consistently performed well. Therefore Milne is by no means assured a long-term tenure in the leadership role.
All that is for the future. For now, all of those who believe in a more sustainable future and a more progressive Australia — yes, even Labor supporters — should take a minute to applaud Bob Brown’s contribution to Australian politics and public life.