It is not often in Australian politics that a major leadership change occurs without leaks, rumours or the media somehow getting a sense of changing winds. Yet that is exactly what has happened today with the resignation of Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown. In 1992, Brown was a driving force behind the unification of the various Greens movements into a united federal party. Brown’s election to the Australian senate in 1996 was overshadowed by John Howard’s landslide victory for the Liberals after 13 years of Labor government. Yet in many ways, Brown’s achievement has been more significant. Howard was swept to the prime ministership with a huge victory in 1996 and left with a huge defeat in 2007. Brown entered federal politics as the first Australian Green* in 1996, leading a party that gained 2.5 percent of the national vote. He leaves in 2012 as one of ten Greens (including a House of Representatives member), part of the fastest growing party in Australia which secured 13.1 percent of the national vote at the last election.
Brown has been the face of the environmental movement for three decades. He rose to prominence in the late 1970s as a leader of the protest movement against the proposed Franklin River Dam in Tasmania. Brown traded in his hippy garb for a suit and tie, determined to give the environmental movement a serious political front. He entered Tasmania’s House of Assembly in 1983 and by 1989 was the leader of a party with 5 out of 35 seats. In 1993 he unsuccessfully ran for the federal seat of Denison providing the only three years between 1983 and 2012 he would not be a member of parliament. Brown is synonymous with the Greens movement and the party faces a unique set of challenges in his absence.
The Greens will be desperate to avoid the fate of the once mighty Australian Democrats. Like the Greens they once had a vocal, popular and recognisable party front man in Don Chipp, they grew steadily and held the balance of power in the national senate and – ominously for the Greens – their political zenith saw them poll 12.6 percent nationally in 1990, an eerily similar result to the Greens in 2010. The Democrats survived the retirement of Chipp but what they failed to do was create generational supporters. Those who remember the Franklin Dam, Lake Pedder or the anti-Nuclear protests will probably stick with the Greens out of loyalty and sentimentality. The crucial battle for the post-Brown Greens is to get Gen Y passionate and educated about environmental issues. Without generational renewal, the Greens may well discover, as the Democrats did, that ten short years can see your support halve and another ten can see 12.6 turn to 0.6 percent.
It is far from all doom and gloom for the Greens and the retirement of Bob Brown may in fact be a blessing in disguise. Brown, for all his charisma, persistence and political cunning, is still a protester at heart and the Greens under his leadership have remained a party of protest. Brown has often said his vision for the Greens is to be a party of government not just a third party. It may turn out that his departure is needed for this to happen. Two decisions in particular stand out as examples of this protest mentality. In 1997, during the heat of the republican campaign, Brown sided with his bene noir, John Howard, to defeat a Labor-Democrats bill to have a plebiscite before the referendum. Every available poll suggests the plebiscite would have been soundly carried and that in turn would have given enormous impetus to the 1999 referendum. Brown sunk the idea in retaliation to Labor’s refusal to back the Greens bill for a plebiscite. Brown acted against his own party’s platform and policy in an act of petty protest.
More recently, the Greens sank Rudd’s emissions trading scheme (and went a good way to sinking Rudd himself) in 2009. By demanding a 40 percent reduction target for 2020, the Greens placed idealism before achievement and protest before policy. As with the republican plebiscite, the end result was that the Greens chose to see nothing happen rather than a small step in the right direction. Brown has since congratulated himself, insisting that Julia Gillard’s carbon tax is ‘so much better’. This is disingenuous on two counts. Firstly, there was no way to know, if she was taken at her word, that Gillard would introduce a carbon tax. Secondly, even if it is ‘better’, the two years of wrangling and obfuscation has seen the issue plummet in the public mind and Tony Abbott is riding a wave of support with his ‘pledge in blood’ to remove it. If Abbott pulls this off, then the Greens, for all their power and influence, will be left with nothing.
Since losing the race for Denison against Labor’s Duncan Kerr in 1993, Brown has far too often seen the ALP as a political rival for the left vote rather than a powerful ally for progressive reform. If the Greens are to fulfill Brown’s dream and be a party of government, the most likely scenario would be a Labor-Greens coalition. We have already seen a glimpse of that with Adam Brandt giving a crucial vote of confidence to Gillard’s minority government. There are signs also in the parting words of the Labor and Liberal leaders. Julia Gillard described Brown as a ‘figure of integrity with a deep love for this country and its environment’. Tony Abbott did not bother to veil his contempt insisting Brown was ‘too strong a force in Australian politics in recent years’.
The old adage suggests that the left divide and the right rule. The post-Brown Greens have enormous potential but if they are to outgrow their protest party image they need to accept that compromise is the hallmark of effective government. They will need to accept that a government party, unlike a protest party, sometimes has to vote for the lesser of two evils rather than their ideal (but unattainable) preference. Christine Milne is the second leader of the federal Greens. She takes control in the wake of Australia’s three largest states all returning to conservative rule. She must feel the weight of history on her shoulders. Will the Greens continue to grow into political maturity or will she oversee their slow decline?
* Dee Margetts was elected as a senator for Western Australia in 1993, however, she represented the Greens Western Australia who at the time were not affiliated with the national Australian Greens Party.