Bob Brown

The End of Brown and the Future of Green

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.

* * *

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.

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Why the Greens in Power is a Good Thing

Yes, the title of this post is somewhat provocative. I mean it to be. Don’t get me wrong: there’s very little chance I would vote for the Greens, and I take issue with many of their policy positions, as well as the broader ideological foundations of the party. The title of this article, therefore, should almost be seen as tongue-in-cheek.

Almost…but not quite. You see, I think there is one very real reason why the Greens having some measure of power in the current Federal Government is a good thing – and it’s not because we now get to see a lot more of Bob Brown. Rather, the Greens in power means that they no longer sit on the sidelines of political debate; they are now in the gladiatorial arenas known as federal and state politics, where a party’s position is out there, naked, in the public square. And this means the Greens are now coming under the often-searing spotlight of media and public scrutiny. For a party whose policies are recklessly naive or perniciously dogmatic, this is no bad thing.

Before the ascendency of the Greens at a national level, they could remain content with casting themselves as the party of innocence and purity, unsullied by the politicking, compromises and collusive behaviour of their bigger brothers. The Greens portrayed themselves as a noble and compassionate group – a paragon of justice and undiluted moral commitment (which was always in contrast with the larger parties). And for a time, that image worked, largely because the Greens had no real power and their stance on a whole raft of issues would not be seriously examined. Indeed, the Greens could afford to develop utopian, impractical or dangerous policies, since there was little chance these policies would ever have to be implemented, or that the party would ever have to worry about trying to moderate its positions if it won some measure of power. Bob Brown & co. could forever be the party of protest, offering an idealistic package that escaped the scrutiny of a media that was only interested in pursuing those whose policy positions would actually have consequences in this country. Much of the voting public was the same, supporting the Greens out of an ignorant environmental moralism. As one commentator stated, “…they voted Green with the knowledge that the Greens would not win government. They probably assumed, too, that a successful Greens party would, as leader Bob Brown recently admitted, be more ‘realistic’ than promised” (Mike Nahan, “Greens’ Policy Lacking Proper Scrutiny,” Adelaide Advertiser, January 8th, 2003). Even after a number of years of blessed political fortunes, the questionable nature of some of the Greens’ policies has escaped notice.

Until now. An example of the unmasking of the darker side of Green policies may help to highlight the evolving media and public reception to the Greens. Many may have heard of the ruckus going on in NSW, in the wake of the recent elections in that particular state. Fiona Byrne, the Greens candidate for the Western-Sydney seat of Marrickville, was caught out supporting a boycott of products made in Israel, in response to what she and other Green party members saw as the deeply unjust treatment of the Palestinian people. She has since backed away from those comments, but it seems that this was indeed the position of the NSW Greens, judging by some leftist media outlets (“NSW Greens: Boycott Apartheid Israel!”, Green Left Weekly, 8th December, 2010). The mainstream media – including The Age and The Australian newspapers – have heaped criticism upon this particular strain of Greens policy thinking, and the barrage has become so great that Bob Brown has had to come out and distance himself from this position (“NSW Greens Israel Boycott Damaging: Brown”, The Age, 1st April, 2011). Welcome to the hustle and bustle of real politics.

Now, I don’t want to get into a complex debate regarding the Israel-Palestine question. Nor do I wish to offer an uncritical defence of every action undertaken by Israel in the course of its struggle with the Palestinians and others. But in the final analysis, it is a small Jewish nation surrounded by countries that were all, until recently, unrelentingly and unremittingly opposed to its existence. Even now, it is still confronted by forces – such as Islamist Iran and terrorist groups, Hezbollah and Hamas – that remain implacably and violently committed to its destruction. Whatever one might say about the security measures Israel has taken in its efforts to remain safe, it ought to be easy to understand why this might be so. As far as I can see, only a commitment to a radical and dogmatic ideological position – one which you often find percolating on university campuses – could lead someone to deny these basic facts, and contribute to the further alienation of a country (the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, by the way) that possesses the unenviable distinction of being perhaps the only state whose neighbours are formally committed to its destruction. And this, from a party that claims to be the new force in Australian politics, and is in a formal power-sharing relationship with Federal Labor.

This is not an isolated example of a policy position that can be charitably described as “eccentric”. Not so long ago, The Institute for Public Affairs, a think-tank, published a working paper analysing many of the party’s policies. It makes for interesting reading. For example, the Greens have been dogmatic in their opposition to GM food, despite evidence suggesting their benefits. They want to institute discredited economic policies that would befit an old-style, centrally-planned economy. And they seek to give all things to all people, conveniently forgetting the old adage that “money doesn’t grow on trees” (if it did, the Greens wouldn’t let us touch it anyway!). During the last Victorian election, for example, the state Greens promised public transport infrastructure for Melbourne – 40 stations, 10 new rail lines, 550 new trams – that made a mockery of financial responsibility.

“Why, then”, you may ask, “is all this a good thing”? In one sense, it’s clearly not: we don’t need policy suggestions that support a ban on Israeli products, for example; that way lies a shameful moral equivalency, which is made even more offensive by the fact that such suggestions are being made by a party that is seriously vying for power (amidst the tirade against Israeli sins, there was no mention of the various Palestinian groups that specifically target Israeli citizens). But in another sense, the newly found power of the Greens may turn out to be the beginning of the end for them. The above issue, significant in itself, is also the tip of the iceberg. It may have created an opening for fresh questioning of the Greens and their policies. Now that they share power at a Federal level, and have made some inroads at a state level, the Greens can no longer hope to evade media and public scrutiny.

The “boycott Israel” incident seems to be unprecedented: I can’t remember the Greens coming under such sustained criticism from media outlets before now. Now that they are in the middle of the political arena, the Greens can expect to see their every move examined and interrogated in excruciating detail. This did not happen when they were merely the party of protest; as I said before, the media concentrated on the larger parties, whose policies actually affected the makeup and direction of the country. A minor party that began as a Tasmanian environmentalist group seemed destined to sit on the political sidelines for the foreseeable future. Consequently, it did not elicit much attention. The political landscape, however, has changed, and given their position of influence, the Greens are now coming in for greater examination. Hopefully, as that process continues, many of their policies – and indeed, their entire ideological platform – will be exposed. They can no longer claim political purity, and can no longer count on immunity from the media spotlight. And once their policies are exposed to the same public glare that has fallen on the major parties for so long, the Greens will either have to moderate their position on a whole raft of issues, or suffer the curse of political irrelevancy. This, I submit, is the paradoxical benefit of having the Greens in power.

Maybe I’m being too hopeful. Maybe I’m being too glib. Maybe people will continue to vote Green, in ever-greater numbers, despite their policies being exposed and interrogated for what they are. But there is a reasonable case to be made that, ironically, the very success of the Greens may well mean their ultimate failure in Australian political life.