I’m sure everyone who heard the news was shocked: Bob Brown has quit politics, effective this June. I know that I was. Not so long ago, he was talking about pushing on through to the next decade. He appeared to be indefatigable, unstoppable – at the height of his powers and at the top of his game. Indeed, he seemed to have reached the political zenith, having helped to form a minority government and exercising a worrying degree of influence over it (or so it seems). Senator Brown, however, has been a significant figure in Australian politics for much longer than the life of the current Federal government. As such, his departure – especially in such an abrupt manner – marks a momentous occasion in this country’s political history. The following are some thoughts and reflections (by no means original, unprecedented or unique) on what this means for the party Senator Brown founded, the Australian Greens.
First up: why did Brown quit? It’s a question that seems not to have been answered satisfactorily. The suggestion has been made that he was tired and fatigued. But that explanation seems incongruous when placed next to his confident assertion (made not two months ago; see Matthew Denholm, “A Couple of Things Behind the Change of Heart,” The Australian, April 15th, 2012) that he was looking fairly far into his political future. What brought about such a change?
One answer might be that Senator Brown saw the writing on the wall. He perhaps knew that the government he helped install is loathed by a large chunk of the Australian electorate. He may further have had an inkling that he shares some responsibility for that loathing, since he helped foist an unpopular carbon tax on an unwilling citizenry. Senator Brown is leaving politics on a high, at about the time the carbon tax comes into force. He doesn’t have to face the collective opprobrium of the Australian public, instead opting for a generous pension package and the tranquillity of the Tasmanian bush – or so the argument goes.
Philippa Martyr, writing in Quadrant, certainly thinks this to be the case (“Brown Down, Deeper and Down”, April 16th, 2012). I’m not as sure about this, although given Senator Brown’s comments regarding his own political longevity, Martyr’s view does have merit. It would seem odd, however, for a man who really is a “conviction politician” (regardless of what one thinks of those convictions) and who, as an activist, was not afraid to cop a bit of criticism in the pursuit of his ideals, to now cut and run. To my mind, there is a disjunction between Bob Brown as he is, and the idea that he wouldn’t be willing to face the electoral consequences of his principles. Perhaps we’ll never know the real reasons.
Although Senator Brown’s motives for leaving the Senate remain a little unfocused, there is one looming question that will be in the minds of many individuals: what does this mean for the Australian Greens? The new leader, Senator Christine Milne, does not have the same profile as Bob Brown. He is iconic (again, without reference to whether that status is for good or ill). Senator Milne, on the other hand, does not have the same stature as a politician. Similarly, Senator Brown can lay claim to being the embodiment of the Australian Greens, and perhaps the wider Australian environmentalist movement. Senator Milne, whilst by all accounts a tough negotiator, cannot claim that mantle. My point is that once Bob Brown has left the scene, what will be left of the party he helped to found? One can imagine that, given his status, this will leave a hole in the party so large that it cannot be filled. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end – a slow decline as the Greens, for so long built around the personal lustre of Senator Brown’s image, begin to flag politically.
Moreover, Bob Brown’s absence may well cause rifts – which have been with the Greens for a while – to surface. There is a well-known division within the party between traditional greens, who are committed to environmental activism, and the so-called “watermelons”: disaffected socialists who sought out the party as a way of bringing their ideological and political homelessness to an end. Senator Lee Rhiannon epitomises this trend. She was, for a very long time, a member of the Socialist Party of Australia, and shifted to the Greens after that earlier party died in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise. She and her ilk represent a burgeoning group within the Greens, and one may well see a schism that threatens the party’s electoral prospects. Without the force of Bob Brown’s person holding the party together, prepare for the possibility of fragmentation. The already-present tensions between those dedicated to a pure environmentalism, and those whose commitment is really a shell for inner devotion to a kind of warmed-up socialism, can only become more overt with Brown’s departure.
To be sure, political parties invariably have to sort through potentially conflicting wings and factions. They are broad churches. The ALP, for example, is divided between traditional defenders of the working class, and those whose appeal is concentrated amongst affluent, left-leaning urbanites whose views overlap considerably with the Greens. The Coalition, too, has to provide a home expansive enough to accommodate those who would describe themselves as small “l” liberals (think Malcolm Turnbull), and those who are more socially conservative (Tony Abbott comes to mind). So, trying to bring together various ideological sub-groups within one party is not unique to the Greens. The party, however, has not had to deal with this phenomenon in any serious way. Senator Brown’s personal stature, as noted, has been enough to keep these potentially polarising forces in check. The test now is for the Greens to move beyond reliance upon Brown’s charismatic and unifying influence. The ability to make a smooth transition from one leader to another, coupled with a broad unity that is simultaneously flexible enough to accommodate internal diversity, are marks of political maturity. It remains to be seen whether the Australian Greens are indeed mature enough to escape dependence on the symbolic power of one individual, and forge a broad-based coalition of views without him.
Similarly, the party has yet to graduate fully from protest social movement to fully-fledged political party. Senator Brown is an astute politician, but the Greens still represent a halfway house between ideological idealism (to put it charitably) and the political mainstream. It is still, in many ways, a party of protest, whose appeal is unlikely to expand further without engagement with the political centre. It was always said of the Greens that they could afford to produce and espouse radical views because they were unlikely to accrue real power. The 2010 Federal election has shown this to be out-of-date (for now, at least). If the Australian Greens want to form government – a prospect that Bob Brown commends, but that I doubt – then they must be willing to abandon the absolutism of many of their policies and learn the art of compromise. Not just negotiation with other political figures, but authentic compromise with various sections of the Australian public. The other way lies political irrelevancy (which may yet be likely).
There have been a number of articles written about Senator Brown over the past few days: some balanced; some fawning; and some downright obsequious. One particular tribute, however, caught my eye. It was a piece that appeared in The Age, written by James Norman (“Bob Brown Hikes off into his Political Sunset,” April 15th, 2012). In this article, Senator Brown’s biographer suggested that his subject “threatens the big end of town because his politics are the politics of democratic revolution…” (italics mine).
It’s lovely rhetoric in a glowing tribute. But how accurate is it? How glittering are Bob Brown’s democratic credentials? I can think of two instances that bring Mr. Norman’s assessment into question. The first instance was Senator Brown’s vocal support for the much ballyhooed media enquiry. He was – and is – a true advocate, calling for the media’s regulation. The second instance occurred recently, where Brown called for a global democracy whilst giving a speech in Hobart. Both examples give the lie to suggestions that the good Senator is a pure advocate for democratic politics. Suggesting that the media needs regulation represents an intolerable intrusion into a long-standing guarantor of freedom of speech. Supporting global democracy means calling for a system of government that cannot possibly respect individual autonomy or liberty. It is rule by the mob writ large, a tyranny of the majority on a global scale. That is not democracy – at least, not as we understand it. In any case, these examples cast doubt on Norman’s view that Bob Brown is a paragon of democratic virtue.
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Bob Brown is certainly a phenomenon in Australian politics, having bridged the gap from social and environmental protestor to hardheaded political negotiator. Whether the party he helped found can do the same is another matter entirely. As I said, I doubt the Christine Milne and others have the magnetism or iconic image, both of which Bob Brown possesses, to propel the Greens towards further electoral success. Political marginalisation may be beckoning, though it may occur at glacial speed.