Friday, April 13, 2012

Room for renewal: Bob Brown quits

In another move that has caught the Canberra hive mind off guard, Greens leader Bob Brown has stood down in favour of his deputy and fellow Tasmanian Christine Milne. Adam Bandt has been elected the new deputy. Brown steps down after 18 years in the job and 16 years in parliament since election in 1996. In his media conference announcing the decision, he said there needed to be “room for renewal”. The timing was related to the need for the Tasmanian Greens to decide on their Senate candidates for the next election before July. Aged 67, Brown did not want to commit to another six years in parliament.

Bernard Keane called Brown’s career a third party triumph. Keane said Brown went from being the only Green in parliament between 1998 to 2001 to the leader of nine senators in 2010 with a vote of 13 per cent. “At a time when politics is increasingly professionalised and parties are pushing younger, less experienced people into senior positions, Brown was a traditional conviction politician, forthright in attacking the most sacred of cows in Australian public policy on economics, the media and foreign policy,” Keane said.

Brown trained as a doctor and gained political prominence as the head of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society during the campaign to save the Franklin Dam. He was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1983. In his book Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary James Norman called Brown the stalwart who has made the Greens the only unambiguously left-wing opposition party in Australia with enormous personal respect. “This gently spoken, bespectacled gay doctor has become something of a national hero of almost pop star status,” Norman wrote in 2005. “Respected even by those who diametrically oppose his politics.”

Some seven years later, not all his enemies were prepared to give him respect. News Ltd’s David Penberthy has been a strong critic for some time. In July 2010 he suggested Brown should be replaced as leader and last month he ridiculed Brown’s third annual Green Oration which opened with the salutation “fellow Earthians” as a “batty speech” and a “deep ecologist ramble” which demonstrated Brown’s “dippy enviro-spiritualism”.

Such attacks from News Ltd are not new to Brown. The Australian infamously editorialised in 2010 that Brown and his Green colleagues “are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box.” In 2011 Brown called News “hate media” for their misrepresentations of him and the climate debate. The biggest selling daily in Australia, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun implored its readers to “Stop this man ruining the nation”.

In the end it wasn’t Murdoch’s papers that forced Brown out; it was his own sense of the need for party renewal. It is not quite generational change. New leader Christine Milne will be 59 next month. Milne has followed in the footsteps of Brown into the Tasmanian Green movement, then the State Parliament, then Canberra and now the leadership. She is determined to put a new stamp on the party, talking today of the need to appeal to ““progressive business”. With her rural background, she said the Greens must also appeal to rural and regional voters.

As someone who now lives in a rural area, I can safely say this will be a mighty challenge despite obvious synergies. Both rural people and the Greens claim to love the land, but see stewardship of it in different ways. Most rural people are suspicious of the Greens as a city-based organisation with little knowledge or empathy about how country folk live their lives. The Greens don’t have any organisation or presence in the bush. They also treat country voters with contempt by placing people in elections that don’t live in or even visit the constituency or cannot be bothered to talk to local media, such as Greens Warrego candidate Graeme Maizey in the recent Queensland election who was rewarded for his lack of engagement with just 2% of the vote.

Perhaps Milne can draw on the work of another Queensland template. Former Queensland Green senate candidate Drew Hutton is now working closely with Queensland farmers as president of the Lock the Gate Alliance against the coal seam gas industry. The Alliance says it is a national group of over 120 community, industry and environmental groups and over 1000 supporters concerned with “the devastating impact that certain inadequately assessed and inadequately-regulated fossil fuel extraction industries are having on our short and long term physical, social, environmental and economic wellbeing.”

The Alliance is likely to appeal to Milne as she seeks to grow the party towards its next stage of evolution. Brown has achieved much since starting the Greens from the ashes of the United Tasmania Party culminating with the election of Adam Bandt and the Coalition agreement with Labor in 2010. But as he said today “we don’t just want to keep the so-and-sos honest, we want to replace them.” Outright power is still a long way away for a party that polls in the low teens. Their biggest vote is among young people but as Pollytics analysed in 2009, it is a volatile demographic. If Milne can somehow reach across the suspicious divide, there may well be room for renewal.

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