The Age

Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Two

It wouldn’t be long before same-sex marriage made its way to Australian shores. Slowly, inexorably, it has lumbered towards a point of mass acceptance. Of course, the issue, as something discussed and fought over, has been alight for a number of years now (providing much fodder for media outlets). What I am talking about, however, is changes to the institution of marriage itself. For a few fleeting moments, SSM was a reality in this country – gaining a foothold in that strange little enclave, the Australian Capital Territory, late last year. That it proved to be a temporary victory for proponents of SSM is, I believe, immaterial. A new threshold has been crossed, and I think the debate – at least for social conservatives, orthodox Christians, and others of their ilk – has already been lost. And although we might have reached a new phase, it seems to represent the culmination of forces that have been gathering pace for some time. That, however, is an essay for another time.

News outlets carried pieces on what took place in the ACT, as well as on the issue more generally. I have read a number of reports related to these developments, but in this article, I want to concentrate on a piece written by a journalist for The Age. It is not unique, of course; others have been offering these arguments for many years. But it is representative in its approach, and so I shall use it as a touchstone, so to speak, with which to engage current attitudes and mores.

I turn, then, to a series of articles written by Sam De Brito, whose writings appear in The Age and other Fairfax newspapers. A little while ago, he wrote an open letter to Fred Nile, the staunch Christian conservative and NSW state parliamentarian. In it, he chided Rev. Nile for “picking and choosing” when it came to interpreting and applying the various commands of Scripture – in particular, that part of the Bible Christians call the Old Testament. The implication was that the leader of the Christian Democrats was not taking his own holy book seriously – happy to deny certain “rights” to homosexual couples (which De Brito seemed to imply was the result of Rev. Nile’s own prejudices), whilst conveniently setting aside Scripture when it came to thornier questions that might cause some discomfort. In a follow-up article (“The Alternative Ten Commandments,” The Age, December 6th, 2013), De Brito wrote that his main “beef” was with Christians who, according to him, inconsistently apply the Bible’s injunctions. He went on to criticise – maybe “mock” is more appropriate – that most-vaunted of religious legal codes, the Ten Commandments.

One wonders how De Brito would have reacted had he encountered a Christian who accepted the Bible’s command to care for the poor and destitute (e.g. Exodus 22:21-22; 23:2-3; Proverbs 21:13, 15), whilst rejecting its prohibitions against homosexual practices. I for one suspect he would be less concerned about theological and interpretative inconsistency. In any case, there are a number of problems with De Brito’s views – as rendered in his second article – which all evince a desperate lack of biblical understanding, and a commitment to caricature over serious analysis. I will turn to those particular calumnies in a later article.

In recounting email exchanges with angry Christians, De Brito says that he was confronted with a number of emails that:

“…predictably descended into…arguments that without God’s word to follow on issues like who we can shag in the privacy of our own homes…”.

The characterisation of sex as a private activity is, as we shall see, relevant. Elsewhere in his writings on marriage, De Brito seems to recognize the public nature of that particular bond. Indeed, it is precisely the public dimension of the institution of marriage – and the consequent recognition couples are accorded by virtue of their participation in it – that so animates supporters of SSM like Sam De Brito. Now, it is perhaps the case that De Brito’s reference to “shagging” and the like was, in fact, a crude rendition of some of the arguments made by his interlocutors. His stated views regarding marriage would, as I said, suggest some kind of acknowledgment regarding its public dimensions. But what, then, of his views on sex? According to De Brito, sexual union is reduced to the act of “shagging” in one’s home. That he emphasises its private nature is evidence that he thinks of it as nobody else’s business. Moreover, in view of the fact that he includes the exhortation to be a “good shag” in his alternative Decalogue, as well as a pointed self-reference as a never-married father, it would seem that De Brito thinks of marriage and sex as being two, distinct realities. Indeed, he appears to think that sex and marriage can be decoupled and grounded in quite separate ways, with no essential connection between them. What ought one to make of this?

First, I should point out the obvious: sex, as a discrete act, is itself a private thing. That hardly needs saying, and I am not implicitly advocating voyeurism. But its representative and symbolic overtones possess a public-social dimension, and have public-social ramifications. Take heterosexual sex, for instance. A man and a woman may come together, either for a night or for a lifetime. What they do in the bedroom is, to the extent that it involves the two of them, private. However, what if that union results in the conception and birth of a child? And what if the temporary coupling took place between people who were otherwise unknown to each other – a “one night stand”, in other words? The sex act, in itself, was indeed private, cloistered. But its consequences, if they included the birth of a child (for example), would be anything but. This, of course, is a little different to the discussion at hand, but goes some way to showing that sexual union cannot be seen as private in an absolutist sense. Not only in its possible consequences, but also in its meaning – which is often shaped by broader social and cultural forces – is sexual intercourse a more-than-private reality. It is inevitably caught up in a whole raft of relationships, networks, social constructions, etc., whilst also having the potential to create new relationships, networks and social links through its inherent generative potential (not to mention the possible physiological and psychological consequences that may flow from the sex act). Marriage, in this respect, is not aberrant. It doesn’t artificially map an institutionalised framework upon an otherwise private relationship; rather, it seeks to recognize what is already an embedded, essential reality about (hetero)sexual unions.

It is this connection between marriage and sex that forms one of the major planks in traditionalists’ efforts to uphold the idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Such an understanding recognizes the complimentary nature of the heterosexual union, which is both comprehensive in itself and inherently geared towards reproduction. Of course, I realize that not all male-female couples choose to use their unions for the purposes of having children. Others, through no fault of their own, are unable to have children. However, aside from the intrinsically comprehensive nature of the heterosexual union (at a basic biological and systemic level, the bodies of males and females seem, for want of a better word, “designed” for each other), it alone amongst the various unions available to people is capable of generating children. It is an inescapably social bond, embracing the children that issue from it, as well as the social world that will one day be influenced by those children. Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes:

“Moreover, marriage (again unlike ordinary friendships) is a matter of public concern and not merely of the private interests of spouses. That is because marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union.”

The institution of marriage simply codifies a unique biological reality, thereby providing a safe environment within which children may be reared and raised. Conservatives have every reason to preserve this institution, given its importance as a framework within which healthy, well-adjusted individuals may be socialised.

Now, back to Sam De Brito. His argument seems to involve a contradiction: on the one hand, he upholds the idea of marriage as, in some sense, a public institution – one that (presumably) should be available to all, regardless of the sexual permutations and combinations that compose individual unions; but, on the other hand, he seems to suggest that sex – which, historically, has been seen as an inescapable component of marriage as traditionally defined – is little more than a private transaction: “shagging” in one’s bedroom, as it were (of course, De Brito would likely say that it can be more than that, by arguing that it is often an expression of the love that exists between two [or more?] people. True; but if can be other than this, to which many a drunken one-night stand testifies, then it cannot be defined by it. Thus, the only relevant commonalities between the various incarnations of legitimate sex acts he envisages are physical union, consent and privacy). It seems that, based upon these incongruous conceptions of marriage and sexual union, he has castigated Christians for worrying endlessly about what gays and lesbians do in private. Maybe some have. But the nub of the issue is the essence of marriage, as a public institution and as an entity with certain properties. In other words: what is marriage in itself (if anything), and what are the (public, social) consequences of attempts to change it? De Brito, in trying to offer a critique of Christians’ views on the matter, seems to have parsed private sex acts and a legalised form of union that is anything but.

De Brito, I submit, appears to be viewing sex and marriage as separate entities, in that either can be practiced without reference to the other (at least consistently; of course, people are free to have sex without marrying one another, whilst couples who have been joined together by a minister or celebrant are free not to consummate that union). However, the question is whether marriage, in particular, can be defined apart from sex. De Brito may want to say that sex need not be a part of the definition of marriage. If the latter is simply the legalised expression of love and commitment between people, and can rest on nothing more than those bonds of affection (however expressed), what else is needed? Similarly, De Brito seems to think that a person’s sexual proclivities can be enjoyed apart from the encumbrances of marriage. Indeed, most people these days would probably agree. As a simple statement of reality, this is uncontroversial. But, to then imply that sexual activity is not an essential component of marriage (which one would likely have to do in such circumstances), forces one into philosophically ambiguous territory. Once again, we are dragged back to what seems to be the centre of this debate, even if it is unacknowledged by many of its participants: what the institution of marriage actually, essentially is.

Indeed, one might legitimately ask: what is the institution of marriage for, if it does not include, as part of any such conception, the importance of sexual activity? What distinguishes marriage from other types of relationship, if not the significance of sex? And if it is connected to sex, then questions regarding the nature of those sex acts, and whether any and every form of sexual expression can provide a basis for marriage, become exceedingly relevant. I have suggested that marriage is inescapably heterosexual, precisely because of the uniqueness of the sexual bond that consummates it. It would seem that marriage, at least from De Brito’s recent writings, is a kind of public commitment, where participants enjoy the privilege of being able to seal their pledges of love and devotion in a legal, recognized fashion. Sex, apparently, is irrelevant – at least in terms of how marriage is defined. Ironically, however, it’s partly because of the sexual nature of homosexual relationships that calls for their recognition have arisen in the first place. I doubt very much whether they would be seen as anything more than particularly intense kinds of friendship if they weren’t expressed, at least in part, through sexual intercourse. Absent this factor, the grounds for recognizing such relationships as in any way different from friendship, generally conceived, would be very weak indeed. De Brito wants to keep sex away from prying eyes and moralistic busy-bodies, but seems not to notice the inescapable connection – wherever one sits – between sexual intercourse and the calls for public validation. To be sure, I do not think that marriage can be founded upon any and all kinds of sexual unions. As I have suggested, heterosexual union alone provides the basis for marriage, precisely because no other type of coupling is inherently capable of producing the next members of a community or social group. I merely point out the layers of incongruous thinking that seem to characterise De Brito’s position: yearning for homosexual couples to be given the right to marry, and yet implying that the very element which has helped generate such claims in the first place – i.e. sexual activity (generally conceived) – has only an accidental relationship to the institution.

Of course, the issues go beyond relatively recent calls for “marriage equality” (a term to which I object, for reasons I shall not go into). More specifically, they go beyond whatever Sam De Brito has written on the subject. His views simply seem to be the outgrowth of a particular cultural narrative, which, in the course of securing freedom of sexual expression, decoupled sexual activity from marriage. The current conception of marriage – which appears to screen out any reference to the creation of a suitable environment for the raising and socialisation of children – owes a great deal to the thoroughgoing romanticisation of love, as well as the deep individualism that prevails in our society. Love is seen as a profusion of emotions and romantic feelings for [an]other person[s]. Thus, on the one hand, sex (of whatever kind) is regarded as a private activity between consenting adults, completely severed from the overarching structures of the marital institution. On the other hand, marriage itself is defined as a kind of contract into which private individuals enter – now seen as a particularly intense form of (codified) companionship, one might say. It could still be argued – superficially – that marriage is public, in the sense that wedding ceremonies are performed before others, reflective of the socio-legal recognition bestowed upon such a relationship. But having severed the substantive elements from the institution, new conceptions of marriage are forced to rest upon the private intentions of those parties entering into such a relationship.

Once more, we witness the attempted fusion of incongruous ideas – the triumph of fashionable thinking over a coherent point of view. In this case, it’s the transformation of marriage into a special form of companionship that most rankles, as proponents of SSM like De Brito seek to dilute the institution. In trying to widen the scope of marriage in order to provide recognition to homosexual couples, views such as De Brito’s end up relying upon a privatised notion of contractual union. Marriage isn’t conceived of as the formation of a unique type of relationship, within which future generations of people may be created and socialised. At best, the sexual and generative features of marriage are subordinate to the (private) feelings of romantic love that exist, and only exist, between the individuals concerned. In other words, marriage has no reality external to the bonds of affection that happen to be exist between individuals; it is reduced to the presence, or actuality, of those feelings. In the absence of the objective reality of sexual complementarity and its inherently generative properties, such unions must be content to rest upon the current emotional states of their participants.

This isn’t merely a question of abstract definitions. If it were, then no more would need to be said. But ideas, as we know, have consequences – and the social consequences of views like De Brito’s, if enshrined in law, may well be disastrous. Nor is it about SSM per se. Rather, the burning issue relates to the deeper ideological and philosophical currents giving rise to calls for “marriage equality” in the first place. What I am referring to are the implications of contemporary views on marriage, particularly as they concern its privatization and underlying emotionality. SSM may be a product of such currents, but its ascendancy would, I think, codify them as the legal basis upon which marriage is founded. Gone would be the understanding of marriage as a bond that is uniquely and inherently capable of issuing in children (who will influence their communities, for good or for ill). In its place would sit a version of the institution that rests, almost entirely, on the normalisation of emotional and physical companionship. Its ongoing legitimacy would only be guaranteed by the bonds of emotion, whilst the objective dimension of marriage would be lost – devolved to the personal feelings of the individuals involved. But how robust a foundation does this provide? Emotions are, as we have all observed, notoriously unstable; they ebb and flow, emerge and recede. One minute, a person might be overwhelmed by feelings of love for another; the next, he might regard that person with relative indifference. How stable are marriages likely to be if they are based upon little more than the feelings of the coupling individuals? Once all external (philosophical) bases for marriage are removed – which seems inescapable if the conjugal conception of marriage is rejected – what else is left but the internal emotional processes that people possess? It hardly needs to be said how destructive divorce can be for all involved – especially children. Trying to root marriages in the transience of one’s private emotions, however, is surely asking for trouble in years to come. Those early feelings of infatuation can subside (sometimes quickly), to be replaced by something more dour, and less romantic. Marriage is, of course, difficult work, and defining it according to one’s emotional state is to turn it into something that is essentially, inherently unstable. If marriage is little more than the outgrowth of affection between two (or more) people – which seems to be all that’s left once traditional conceptions are rejected – what should we say about the reality of that union if such affection disappears? What should we say if and when such unions collapse, causing heartache and anguish for all involved? And what should we say if the children of such failed unions find themselves burdened in life by the fraying of those native bonds of affection?

To take just one example: the increased incidence of drug and alcohol abuse amongst young people from broken families. The conservative “Heritage Foundation” has documented the rates of alcohol, cigarette and illicit drug abuse amongst such youths. In a series of articles that draw from a wide variety of research, the think-tank found that children and adolescents from intact families all had significantly lower rates of alcohol, cigarette, marijuana and cocaine use than did their peers from families that had been fragmented through divorce (see, for example, Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector, “The Effects of Divorce on America,” June 5, 2000). Research, therefore, strongly suggests that children from homes sundered by divorce are more likely to engage in them. And yet, trying to corral marriage in the aforementioned way, so that it is forced to rest upon the (transient) emotional states of the participating individuals, is simply welcoming that destruction at some time in the future – perhaps not for every individual, or even for every marital union, but certainly for some. If marriage is grounded in nothing more than such states, and is normalised accordingly, it does not bode well for the survival of many such relationships. What is more, one cannot ignore the baleful ripple effects that ensue if such marriages break-down. However, the confused, contradictory view of marriage that De Brito (and others like him) propounds undermines a bond that is, in many ways, essential to human flourishing. Unfortunately, however, it appears little is able to prevent this view from now being enshrined.

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The Cost of True Riches (or The Cost of Discipleship…but that’s Already Taken)

As per my usual custom, I was perusing the daily newspapers the other morning. Whilst doing so, I happened upon a very interesting article in The Age. It reported that the creator of the 1960s-set drama, Mad Men, had forked out $250,000 for use of a Beatles’ song, Tomorrow Never Knows. According to the creator, “…the show lacked a certain authenticity…” because he had never been able to use a master recording of the Beatles. So, his solution was to spend a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege (see “Mad Men Pays $250,000 for Beatles Song,” The Age, 9th May, 2012).

It’s a mind-boggling amount of money, simply for a few minutes of music. But my point is not to focus on an apparent case of financial profligacy. Of course, we may baulk at the thought of spending that much on something as ephemeral as a few bars from a pop-song. Others, though, may see this as a wise investment. Arguments of this ilk are, in many ways, beside the point. It seems to me that the story is instructive for a very different reason. This peculiar little story can actually offer followers of Jesus a model, or metaphor, for the nature and cost of Christian discipleship. The costly efforts of the Mad Men creator to secure something he saw as absolutely indispensable to his creation should stimulate our thinking about how much Christians are willing to part with in order to reach that which is most precious. In order to perfect his show, to better it – to authenticate it – the creator (and the producers, no doubt) was willing to spend a small fortune on something relatively small.

How much more, then, should Christians reflect on the value placed upon, say, intimacy with Christ, and the consequent costs that are involved in securing that intimacy? Only if Christians are willing to pay the price for an authentic life of discipleship will they actually receive it. To be sure, intimacy with Christ is a gracious gift. The act of the dying, triumphant God, who opened up the possibility of salvation for those fashioned in his image, is something that cannot be earned or extracted. It is grounded in the free act of the One who is eminently free. However, this gift is not without cost. Indeed, salvation may be free, but it is expensive. It costs a lot, and entails much sacrifice: for the God who offered himself for his sinful image-bearers; and for those image-bearers who, by the Spirit, have given themselves to him in return. This is the hard road of discipleship and progressive sanctification, as Christians live out their declared separation from sin and under God’s reign. No claim regarding the Christian life that posits anything less can truly be known as such. Christian authenticity is none other than the reality of Christ’s life in the life of an individual; and given that this reality can only come about as the individual takes a resolute, lifelong stand against everything that would mar Christ’s image in him, Christians ought to reflect soberly on how costly that can be.

The New Testament has much to say about the costliness of true discipleship – about the sacrifice that Christian authenticity entails. Against the backdrop of God’s gracious provision of salvation through Christ, the authors of the NT write frequently of how much it takes to walk the narrow road. Cheap grace is not to be found in its pages; nor is an antinomian attitude countenanced. For once it is recognized that the chief obstacle between the Christian and intimacy with Christ is the constant predation of sin, the struggle against it takes on new, almost cosmic, meaning. The Apostle Paul, for example, spoke of putting to death the sinful nature (cf. Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:24). That is a striking image: death. Christians are called, not to reason with the sinful nature, or to simply oppose it (though that is certainly true). They’re to put to death, so to speak. Paul uses the chilling finality of a person’s demise as a way of getting at the attitude Christians should have towards sin. In the pursuit of authentic discipleship, followers of Christ are to ruthlessly and completely separate themselves from its pernicious effects.

But Paul is not the only NT writer to speak about the struggle for holiness, the cost of discipleship, and the conflict against sin. The evangelists, who recorded the words and deeds of Jesus, included in their works sayings that point to the importance, nay the utter urgency, of pursuing that which is godly. Let’s look at one particular passage: Matthew 6:19-24. It occurs in the midst of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he offered a kind of new covenant charter to the disciples that had gathered around him and received his ministry. In this passage, Jesus commands his followers not to store up earthly treasures for themselves. Instead, he counsels them to store up heavenly treasures (v.20) that cannot be harmed, followed by the conclusive statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v.21).

The creator of Mad Men, obviously devoted to his work, is a perfect reflection (albeit in a rather perverse way) of the general thrust of Jesus’ words in verse 21; indeed, one might even say that his heart – the centre of who he is – lies with his creative endeavours. That forms the background to what might seem to be an extreme act. Jesus’ pithy statement rings true, regardless of context, for one’s life will be devoted to what one considers most valuable, such that one will offer everything for it. The question for those who claim to value Christ above all need to reflect upon where their hearts are set, and just what their treasure is. A person “cannot serve two masters” (6:24); devotion to God cannot be tempered by devotion to something else. As such, authentic Christian living – living that is genuinely and transparently Christ-like – will not admit such admixture.

Intimacy with Christ, and the life that is transformed accordingly, is one that demands the complete devotion of the person who benefits from it. Again, we may look to Jesus himself to shed light on this. Matthew 13:44-46 has him likening the kingdom of heaven (God) to both treasure and fine pearls. They conjure up images of objects prized and valuable. Like them, the kingdom is something to be treasured; and, like the ones pursing them in Jesus’ parable, those who claim to follow him are to “sell everything” for it. In order that true Christian discipleship may flourish, a resolute willingness to sacrifice everything for it needs to sit firmly within the Christian’s heart. Whereas Paul uses the image of death as a way of characterizing the extent to which Christians ought to pursue God and the holy life, Jesus here puts it in terms of payment. Either way, the point is clear: Christian discipleship is a life marked by the kind of total sacrifice that is itself grounded in the knowledge that what is being received is of infinite value. It cannot be otherwise. It means taking up one’s cross, dying to sin and declaring exclusive allegiance to the One in whose image we are made and to whose likeness we are being conformed. It means giving everything – up to, and including, ourselves – in order to secure something far more valuable. The late John Stott, in writing of the Christian’s struggle against the sinful nature, said this:

“Self-denial…is actually denying or disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way” (“The Cross of Christ”, p.323).

Quite so. The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said that when “Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”, and in many ways, it is true. Having been bought at the price of Christ’s death, we must recapitulate that death in our lives so that we might obtain true life. Indeed, we are to “put to death” the sinful nature (borrowing from Paul). Of course, that is the case for all those who are in Christ, for death is the final stage of sin’s rule. Nevertheless, discipleship in this life demands a thousand daily “deaths” to self, to the pride, to sin. Only as that happens can we truly say that we are members of God’s kingdom. Denying the sinful nature and taking hold of God’s kingdom, therefore, are two sides of the same coin. Or, to put it slightly differently, everything that I have mentioned in this essay – intimacy with Christ, the pursuit of holiness, authentic discipleship, and devotion to God – are of a piece; you cannot have one without all the others. It’s a packaged gift. As I said earlier, it’s a gloriously free gift. However, an authentic Christian life, even more so than an authentic TV program, costs everything. 

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.

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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.