Bob Brown’s resignation: experts respond

Bob Brown announces his resignation from politics at a press conference in Canberra. AAP/Lukas Coch

Senator Bob Brown today resigned as leader of the Australian Greens. He will vacate his Senate seat in June.

Former deputy Christine Milne has been elected leader of the party, with a new deputy to be announced later today.

The Conversation asked some of Australia’s political experts about the significance of Brown’s surprise announcement.

Clive Hamilton is a Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. In 2009 he was the Greens candidate in the by-election for the federal seat of Higgins.

Anyone shocked by Bob Brown’s resignation can’t have been paying attention. The signs that the Greens leader was looking to move on have been around for a couple of years. Now seems an ideal time for him to make his exit as it will give the Greens’ parliamentary team time to adjust before the next election and, more importantly, for voters to get used to the idea of life-after-Bob.

The only surprise is that Dr Brown’s Senate replacement has not been lined up. But in a way that’s typical of how the Greens operate. Brown has resolutely refused to use his enormous authority in the party to influence the selection of candidates. It would go against the party’s democratic — some would say “too democratic” — culture.

Although everyone could see it coming, nothing was done explicitly to prepare for Brown’s departure. On the other hand, the last several years, in which the Greens have been transformed from a fringe presence in federal politics to a highly effective coalition partner at the centre of policy-making, have been the best preparation possible.

The absence of preparation has been helped by the unanimous assumption that the leadership baton would pass to Christine Milne. The natural accession was not built on any factional deals but simply on the recognition that Milne’s experience and talent make her the stand-out choice.

She will undoubtedly come in for a savaging from elements of the mainstream media, partly because she is replacing Brown, who was respected even by his enemies, and partly because she is a woman. Yet she will endure and it is unlikely the Greens will begin to fade. Quite the opposite.

The Greens were never a ginger group trying to triangulate the main parties. They stand for something. They have a well-articulated ideology and a platform that distinguishes them from the two main parties. That’s why the Coalition and Labor have frequently ganged up to defeat the Greens. In state parliaments the Labor Party has often seen the Greens as its principal foe.

Despite the facile comparisons of those hostile to the Greens, Bob Brown is not a Don Chipp. The Greens have much more breadth and depth than the Australian Democrats ever had, which renders them much less dependent on a single character. The grass-roots sink much deeper than they ever did for Chipp’s party, which was always doomed by its self-definition as the party whose only function was to keep watch on the others.

Bob Brown is hustled away by police after he shouted ‘Free Tibet’ slogans at the Chinese National Peoples Congress chairman Li Peng in 2002. AAP/Alan Porritt

Many in the mainstream media feel so threatened by the Greens and what they stand for that they are unable to judge its nature as a political force. Before the last election the accusation that the Greens were an irresponsible and inflexible party that could never be trusted with government had become a political cliche.

Now, as a coalition partner, Bob Brown is accused of being a “wily politician” who negotiates hard and extracts the maximum from the Greens’ position. In practice, as much or more of the political wins are down to Christine Milne, a hard negotiator with Brown’s commitment to Greens principles and his ability to recognise the political limits.

The “revelation” that the Greens have turned out to be a stabilizing and very effective governing party has forced conservative pundits to rewrite their scripts (although most have yet to publish them).

The question now is whether the public — those who have voted or might vote Green — will revise their understanding of the third party under Christine Milne. Since nothing of substance will change, your answer depends on how fickle you think Australian voters are.

John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University

Every new leader changes their party and that is going to be the case with Christine Milne replacing Bob Brown. New leaders alter the party’s public image and they alter the party’s internal dynamics. Usually this takes time as the new leader grows in the job and begins to develop their distinctive style. This will certainly happen in the Brown-Milne case.

The change-over comes at a critical time for the party as it prepares for the next federal election, at which it must maintain its momentum and hope that, between them, Labor and the Greens can maintain control of the Senate. That is not a given but it is essential to the Greens’ continued political influence.

The Democrats found dealing with the Howard government extremely difficult after 1996 and, balance of power or not, the Greens will likewise find life challenging should Labor lose the next election - as it probably will.

Changes in leadership especially challenge minor parties. Not only was Bob Brown extremely important to the Greens’ public image but he was also a calming influence within the party room and an experienced parliamentary negotiator with a deft touch.

The Greens are still sorting out their approach to parliamentary politics, to relations with governments, to internal leadership and to their position on the ideological continuum. Australia-wide they contain members and MPs of varying hues and aspirations.

Christine Milne has huge shoes to fill and with all these internal and external issues to attend to, she will hardly have time to take a breath. How well she handles her new job will go a long way to determining whether the Greens maintain their federal momentum. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott will be holding their breath.

Haydon Manning, Head of Department of Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University

With Bob Brown’s resignation, Black Friday’s noon no doubt brought with it a certain shiver through the spines of many a Green’s member, and probably most, but not necessarily all, the national parliamentary team.

Out goes the founding member, the one who carried so well the gravitas and charisma of his leadership. Christine Milne is her party’s obvious choice but her capacity for shrill commentary on the politics of the day needs to be tempered. One poor election result will no doubt see a “mainlander” sidle up to challenge, and with it all the angst and animosity this brings to party politics.

As honest, and as earnest, as Milne might be, she simply does not cut to the quick like the trademark that became the Bob Brown doorstop interview. Greens supporters nationwide hung off his every word and those voters turning off the major parties, particularly Labor, increasingly would tune in.

As a balance-of-power party in search of an authoritative leader, and drifting to the left, the Democrats’ demise is instructive, for here resides a portent of things to come. The so-called “watermelons” resident within most of the mainland state branches of the Greens may seek to exploit the space that opens in the absence of Brown’s authority. If that happens we may well see history repeat itself, much to Labor’s glee.

Christine Milne has been elected new leader of the Greens. AAP/Lukas Coch

Nick Economou, Senior Lecturer, School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University

Bob Brown is one of the giants of contemporary Australian politics. He had quite a profound impact on the environmental debate, both in Tasmania and nationally. He’s had a profound impact on the party system, because he’s overseen the emergence of the Greens as a forceful party player.

The Greens will face quite a significant challenge without him because there’s something about Bob Brown that appeals to voters in a way that a lot of his colleagues don’t have.

He came across as a highly ethical man in a field where there’s a perception that people don’t have ethics. He was also a very gentle man, but firm and resolute in what he was about. He communicated very well with people, even though you wouldn’t say he was the most inspiring orator you’ve ever met.

I think the Greens are really going to struggle without him at the helm. He was a voice of reason, negotiation and pragmatism in a political landscape in which there are a lot of people who are very ideological.

Christine Milne’s ascendancy to the leadership is something Brown would have encouraged. As a Tasmanian Green, she’s very well versed in the art of negotiation with mainstream party players to achieve policy outcomes, so she’s clearly the natural successor.

Whether she’ll stay on is another matter, because there are tensions within the Greens over the direction the party should take, and I don’t think she’s a smooth communicator, At least one other Green from the mainland, Sarah Hanson-Young, has had leadership aspirations, and I dare say those leadership aspirations will re-emerge.

It’s interesting that he’s taking his leave now and his political successor will have to deal with the fall-out from the carbon tax, which is due to come in from July 1. That matter has been off the agenda a bit, but it will be back front and centre in July.

Bob Brown and MP Michael Organ wear pictures of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib before a speech by US President George W. Bush to parliament in Canberra in 2003. Brown interrupted Bush during his speech. AAP/David Gray

Mark Rolfe, Lecturer School of Social Sciences and International Studies at University of New South Wales

Bob Brown’s biggest achievement is the establishment of the Greens and their entrenchment in Tasmania from the 1980s, especially with the Franklin Dam issue. There was also a range of issues accomplished down there with the minority Labor government.

I think his achievements are more mixed federally, because so much depends on how Labor performs at the next election.

Things like the carbon tax and the minerals resources tax - these were major things that his party was involved with, and they depend on whether the Labor party gets back in. The success of the carbon tax now relies on people generally seeing that it wasn’t as big a fright as Tony Abbott was claiming.

Bob Brown stamping around the country wouldn’t make any difference, so it won’t matter that he’s not there when it comes in.

One of the things about the success of minor parties is the public profiles of their leaders. As much as the Greens have a very strong grassroots organisation, it is, like other minor parties, depending on its profile in the media.

One sees in the past with the Australian Democrats that when they had a leader who didn’t have that profile, they suffered. When they had a leader like Cheryl Kernot and others - Don Chipp - they prospered. That is going to be part of the burden for Christine Milne: maintaining that public profile.

There is the potential for conflict between Milne and the Tasmanian Greens and the NSW branch, which seems to be rather more strident and rather more neo-Stalinist in some quarters.

Things could change once Bob Brown goes. There was always the capacity for infighting. Despite the seat in Melbourne, the Greens aren’t in the ghetto of the Senate, so to speak. And that has always been a precarious existence.

It’s always hard to tell how long minor parties will last in the Senate. I think they will suffer a bit over the next couple of years, but I think the party will continue. It’s not going to fall apart.

Kate Crowley, Associate Professor and Head of the School of Government, University of Tasmania

Bob Brown is 67 years old and he has built the Australian green movement. And that movement has had global implications in terms of inspiring “green politics” around the world.

He has also mentored people every step of the way. So the party is actually built up very strongly in terms of membership but also in terms of representation at all levels of government.

The Greens’ united message is about the environment and environmental protection. Bob Brown has represented the bringing together of the many disparate voices within the environment. He’s brought them together very well and very ably.

But as in any movement there’s a huge number of people with varying opinions and it will be just a matter now for the party working through to accommodate those.

And Green parties all over the world have been faced with the same thing. They’ve got all different shades of green within their ranks – from the left to the right.

Christine Milne is a very able person to replace him. I think she’s got it in her to steer the ship.

But what is immediately interesting is who will replace him in the Senate. That’s a decision to be made officially by the parliament of Tasmania but it must be a member from the same party. So in that respect it will be the parliament of Tasmania endorsing who the party chooses.