In a political career that began in 1983, Bob Brown has been the ubiquitous face of green politics in Australia. He took his first seat in the Tasmanian parliament on countback after the resignation of Australian Democrat, Norm Sanders.
From an informal alliance of state Greens parties to a united national party; from local and state representation to nine senators and a seat in the House of Representatives; from the party of protest to 11% of the national vote in 2010: Brown has been the Greens’ driving force.
This morning he announced his resignation from the Senate and from the leadership of the party he helped found. His deputy and fellow Tasmanian, Senator Christine Milne, was elected leader and will now have the responsibility of steering the party through the next phase of its development. The inevitable question is whether the Australian Greens can survive without the charismatic and outspoken Brown at the helm.
A party for the future
The 2010 election saw the Greens pick up an additional Senate seat in South Australia, regain their NSW senate seat, win seats for the first time in Queensland and Victoria, and pick up the lower house seat of Melbourne from the retiring Lindsay Tanner. Much was made then of whether the Greens’ vote had peaked. The party had increased its vote by 2% on the 2007 result, which itself was a 1.4% increase over their 2004 election result.
Most political and media analysts, however, dismissed the Greens’ 11% nationally as a protest against two lacklustre major parties with unpopular leaders and predicted that such unprecedented support for the Greens could not be maintained.
What such statements overlook is that the Greens did not come down in the last shower. In its federated form, the Australian Greens has been in existence for 20 years. At state level, they have been a political presence since the 1980s. Bob Brown has more parliamentary experience than Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott combined.
How this translates in terms of electoral support is that there is an entire generation of voters for whom the Greens have always been an alternative to the major parties, and, moreover, an entire generation of supporters who always have, and always will, vote Green.
Over time, this support can only grow as the party continues to attract young voters disillusioned with the major parties and disengaged with “old” politics. The Greens’ catchcry that they “do politics differently” resonates with young voters who want to be part of social change and for whom environmental issues are a priority.
The courage of his convictions
Unlike the now largely invisible Australian Democrats, with which the Greens have often been compared as a minor party, the Greens, under Brown’s leadership, carved out a political niche that other parties avoided.
They have not stooped to populism and because of this often find themselves in the political wilderness by taking a stand on controversial issues, such as asylum seeker policy. Also unlike the Democrats they have approached their role in parliament proactively, not reactively. As Brown has said on several occasions, “We don’t want to keep the bastards honest, we want to replace them.”
It is a testament to Brown’s strength of leadership and his courage, conviction and commitment that he has risen above the personal abuse often hurled at him to focus on governance based on social justice and environmental sustainability. These are not politically popular issues with governments focused on profits and economic growth.
The right time
At the age of 67, Brown has decided to retire at a time of his own choosing. He does so in the knowledge that the party’s rank and file membership is growing, that it is well represented at local, state and federal levels, that it has achieved gender balance in its representation and has a solid base of electoral support on which to build for the future.
At a time when cynicism about politics and politicians is high and the major parties struggle to keep, much less gain, members, the Greens continue to grow and are slowly but steadily increasing their support in the electorate.
What sets Brown apart from many other political leaders is that he knows the party is not just all about him. He has not had to endure the ignominy of losing his seat or being knifed in the party room.
He walks from the leadership and the Senate knowing that he has made a difference and has done so without compromising his conscience or his ethics.
There can be no higher aspiration in public life.