Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Bob Brown and the Virtue of Humility

Bob Brown at the University of Newcastle, 1986. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections/Flickr

Archaeologists tell us that Sumerian kings had their face slapped once a year by a priest to remind them of the importance of humility. Medieval historians note that monarchs were sometimes forced to swear to God that they would not abuse their power. Bob Brown used his resignation speech to remind us that democracies use more down-to-earth methods to humble the powerful. Not just written constitutions, political parties, periodic elections and parliamentary representatives accountable to their own citizens. There’s something more: democracies require leaders who know when their time is up and who feel it’s their duty to leave office, to make way for others, with grace and humility.

There are many democratic virtues, among them courage, honesty, mercy, tolerance, but the cardinal democratic virtue is humility. For three decades, Bob Brown has been her champion. His Murdoch newspaper critics have consistently mis-described him as a “crackpot” and “dangerous obsessive”. The ABC’s Annabel Crabb sees him as a “conviction politician”. Both perspectives overlook his most striking quality: humility.

The son of a country policeman, he’s one of those rare politicians who grasped right from the beginning that those who trumpet their own humility suffer from its lack. But the man who once heckled President George W. Bush in a joint parliamentary session demonstrated that humility is never meek, docile, or submissive; contrary to popular wisdom, humility is their foe. It takes guts.

2003 Rebel: Brown resorts to the telecast of Chinese President Hu Jintao addressing a joint session of Parliament after being expelled from the chamber for 24 hours, as punishment for heckling President George W. Bush Alan Porritt/AAP

So what is humility? From the campaign against the Franklin Dam which landed him in prison through to recent efforts to rein in carbon polluters and mining companies, Brown showed that humility requires living honestly, without political illusions. He was not a “compromise politician” in any simple sense. He just didn’t like fantasists. Nonsense on stilts, lies and bullshit were never his thing.

Brown faced trainloads of abuse during his time in politics, but he consistently reminded his opponents that we human beings are dwellers on earth (from humus, from which the word humility also derives). Humble people draw breath from that connection. That’s why he once fasted for a week on Mount Wellington as an anti-nuclear activist and why he’s soon off to test his hiking skills in the mountains of Tasmania. Brown showed that humility strengthens the powerless. It mentors others, radiates in their presence, calmly, cheerfully. Humility is a social virtue; it helps people ‘be themselves’. It is also a generous virtue, the opposite of haughty hunger for power over others. That’s why Brown balked at humiliation, shunned showy arrogance and all forms of aggressiveness. Humility for him implied equality: it stands opposed to all forms of human bossing and violent rule, including human attempts to dominate the biosphere in which we dwell.

During our interview last year in Canberra, I thought I’d test Bob Brown by asking him whether he worried the aphrodisiac power would rush to his head after taking control of the Senate. Wouldn’t it fan the coals of arrogant pride? Contradict his political reputation for decency, openness, fairness? Turn him into a political celebrity? I’ve asked the question to scores of politicians before. Not one ever replied as he did that afternoon. Unflinching, deadpan, he visibly meant what he said: “In a decade or two from now, I’ll be dead. To think that in some way or other, celebrity is going to be the fulfilling thing in life is to head for a crash. I just think doing what you can in an extraordinary circumstance on a planet that is in real trouble is the most fulfilling thing available”.

The sentiments summarise Bob Brown’s remarkable awareness of his own limits. They explain why his humble decision to hand on the leadership of the oldest Green party in the world should come as no surprise. It is certainly no “bombshell”. Brown has proved that political careers don’t necessarily end in failure. His has ended on a mountain high, which should prompt us to thank him for his democratic services and to say: enjoy washing the dishes and good luck to you, mate.

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