The results of September’s election lifted the veil on Australian culture to reveal a mean, embittered face, says former Greens leader Bob Brown. Speaking to New Matilda, he said Tony Abbott’s popularity is the articulation of Australia’s conversion from a generous, happy country to one characterised by how much it withholds.
“In the Howard years Australia became a much meaner and more self-interested country … We are the richest people per capita in the world, if you just look in material terms, and we are the richest people ever to live on the Earth," Brown said
"Yet there’s this air of dissatisfaction and a feeling that we are being cheated, and that is a cultural shift that came out of the Howard years and has been promoted mightily by the Murdoch media — and that flows on through the ABC and all the other radio shock jocks and so on.”
He believes the Labor years did little to challenge the assumption of Howard-Abbott populism that Australians are fundamentally self-serving. This failure meant Labor fought an election on the terms of the Coalition, battling to appeal to voters' self-interest.
During their period in opposition the Liberals depicted the environmental movement as an enemy of the economy and individual well-being. The antagonistic positioning was overt, deliberate and Australians responded with their votes.
The Liberals went to the election on a platform that included removing layers of environmental regulation, redacting world heritage status from Tasmania’s forests, expanding coal mining in the Galilee basin, opening coal ports that could affect the Great Barrier Reef and removing the $10 billion Clean Energy Fund. But these were mere pallbearers at the funeral of the carbon tax.
“People voted for that with their eyes wide open,” Brown said. “And I might add to that, that they voted for $4 billion dollars in foreign aid to be not spent.”
Australia was dishonoured with the Colossal Fossil award from the Climate Action Network, for their disruptive attitude to the Warsaw climate talks in November. The UN's former climate chief, Yvo de Boer, said in November that Australia’s attitude had shown it to be “a country that would rather stick to a business-as-usual approach rather than building a low-carbon growth model”.
“Australia has generally been seen as a champion of environmental innovation, particularly in climate change," Brown said. "It is now a pariah in the international arena. But people voted for that, Australians knew what they were getting and they voted for it."
His bleak realism should not be mistaken for pessimism. He views self-interest as a hallmark of the times rather than a natural law. Indeed, he says, it bears the seeds of its own destruction.
“I think now it’s starting to tell and I think that [in]this period of government there is a fairly rude awakening occurring in Australia, about whether this is really the country we want to have?" Brown said. "I think that we’re going to see a great strengthening in the direct action from people who do have the intellect who know we do have to protect the biosphere.”
This vision of a future shaped by collective power mounts a challenge against the politics of the self that has so dominated the Australian conversation. Brown remains a staunch democrat. Progressive democracy demands faith in people to make collective decisions based on justice and equality.
There is little doubt who Australia’s ear is bent towards. In September, an electoral tide threatened to sweep the Greens away. Their primary vote dropped by 3.3 per cent across the country. The party clung tenaciously to its numbers in the Senate and their lower house seat in Melbourne.
Brown says the Greens, with their platform of altruism and environmentalism, has suffered from the new, more selfish Australian narrative.
“We’re in a democracy and I’m a very strong democrat and I think it’s a very worrying sign that the self-interest factor is so great that we’re not going to be able to protect the environment in a meaningful fashion in the future."
“There’s an ennui or a feeling of 'Why bother?' or even fatalism — that action doesn’t make any difference — which has to be gotten over. Because if people in wealthy countries like Australia can’t be motivated to get out and defend the future of the planet, and people on the planet, and life on the planet, you can’t ask others to do it.”
The September election was the first federal poll in 23 years where the Greens did not run the iconoclastic Tasmanian doctor on their ticket. Brown vowed to step back from the functioning of the party after this year’s election.
He has used the opportunity to immerse himself in direct action. He has joined Sea Shepherd Australia as its director and is closely overseeing the national expansion of the Save the Tarkine campaign.
“I said on the day I retired that I’d be a Green while ever I draw breath," he said. "I’m not involved in the politics of the Greens in Canberra, I don’t get involved in their day-to-day politics and I haven’t been to a Greens conference since I retired. Nor do I intend to intervene in politics at that level, I think that would be very remiss. But when it comes to promoting Green philosophy, I’m doing it all over the place."
Brown says the internet has the power to both galvanise and dilute community activism.
“You can hardly go to your computer without being asked to click on this petition or that petition and I think that’s really beguiling. The view that if you sign this petition against Japanese whaling, that somehow you’ve done something to prevent the Japanese from going south — is beguiling and very false."
I think there is no substitute for community action in which people band together through a common intelligence for the benefit of the wider community and the future," Brown adds. "To take direct civil action is going to be hugely important this century. And what I do think is that GetUp! and international organisations like that are a terrific mode for informing people for rapid action.”
Bob Brown rode into politics on a wave of political action in the 1980s. His return to full-time activism coincides with Australians once again taking to the streets. Marches against climate change in November may be the latest sign that we are remembering who we are.
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