Farewell Bob Brown  

Posted by Big Gav in

I was sad to see Bob Brown announce his retirement last week. On the plus side he's been remarkably effective at building a third party and forcing through a carbon tax over the past couple of years courtesy of achieving the balance of power at the last election. Its a shame that parliament will be losing one of the few authentic politicians left - what a sad collection of hacks the rest of them are (other than a few remnant exceptions like Malcolm Turnbull).

Crikey duo Bernard Keane and Guy Rundle have some thoughts. First Keane - Brown: our most successful third-party pollie.

Bob Brown ends his long and successful parliamentary career with the Greens at the peak of their power.

The former medical practitioner has travelled the long journey from the United Tasmania Group, which won just under 4% of the vote in the 1972 state election, to leader of the party with the balance of power in the Senate, a deal with a minority government and a House of Representatives seat.

After a medical career, Brown served 10 years in the Tasmanian parliament (taking his seat the day after he was released from prison for protesting against the Franklin Dam) and, as he would do in the Senate, oversaw the rise of the Greens to balance-of-power status in Tasmania.

Brown entered the Senate in 1996 and was, from 1998 to 2001, the sole Greens representative (and parliament’s first openly gay member). A decade later, he leaves the Senate with nine Greens senators, after the Greens Senate vote reached 13% in 2010.

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, including challenging George W. Bush when he addressed Parliament. He most recently attracted criticism for his now-famous “fellow earthians” speech arguing for a global parliamentary democracy.

What was missed by most commentators was that the speech was to a Greens party conference; when Barnaby Joyce plays to his party’s base it is seen as canny retail politics; when Brown did the same, it was “looney left” stuff.

A key challenge from the rise of the Greens to balance of power status (and the spread of Greens senators to all states) has been managing expectations from the party’s base — which varies significantly in different states, with the Australian Greens still notionally being a composite of separate state parties. But this was deftly managed in relation to the carbon price with Christine Milne convincing Labor to establish an all-party process to develop a package, enabling the Greens to shape the package from the outset, which led to a significant array of “direction action” measures, including a massive Clean Energy Finance Corporation investment vehicle.

The result is that, so far, the threat of alienating the party base through the necessary compromises that come from the balance of power has yet to eventuate. ”I’ve always waited for a protest outside our window saying we’re too weak,” Brown told Crikey recently, “but I find myself in a situation where we’re taking a stronger stand on environmental issues than key mainstream long-established environment group — I never thought I’d find myself in that position.”

Despite media portrayals of him as a soft liberal, Brown’s early political experience was torrid.

“Twenty years ago I could not go up the street without getting abused,” he said. “Quite a lot of it was homophobic abuse, but it was coming out of the fact that I was an environmentalist, wanting to change the economic direction, the skill set and the employment base of this state … it was threatening, it was abusive, it was foul language, car windows down when people drove up the street … having the personal wherewithal to go through that sort of ever-present abuse … is a bit of a crucible for toughening up and a bit of a learning curve.

“But,” he added, “I’m not in Syria.” And, he says, now he has the opposite problem of being stopped by well wishers.

With the carbon pricing package about to start and the party at historic levels of strength federally, Brown leaves politics as the most successful non-major party politician of his generation, having twice built up a parliamentary third-party presence to balance-of-power levels.

Brown’s Tasmanian colleague Christine Milne will succeed Brown; like him, Milne has considerable state parliamentary experience and led the Tasmanian Greens in coalition with the Liberals in the 1990s (after succeeding Brown). It was Milne who drove the Greens’ involvement in the carbon pricing package. ...

Brown today rightly declared himself proud to be leaving the leadership of a growing party. But he is less optimistic about the overall direction of progressive politics currently.

Progressive politics, he told Crikey, is in a “stunning and very troubling retreat … it’s being totally eclipsed by the power of the corporations..."

And now Rundle's take (rather more dense reading than you'll find anywhere else on the topic !) - Greens will survive the Brown-out.
There’s something cruelly ironic about the departure of Bob Brown, and the subsequent coverage of it — the acres of identikit propagandorial cost the death of countless trees to cover the career of a man whose life’s work was to save them.

Throughout News and Fairfax, national correspondents with zip to go on — because they rarely bother to talk to individual Greens senators about their beliefs, priorities and pollies — tried to conduct some sort of guessing game about the likely effect of Brown’s departure. Was Christine Milne too strident for the public to take to? Would the Greens go the way of the Democrats? Was this departure a product of factional splits within the Greens? The Democrats, would the Greens go the way they had gone? Was there conflict between state and federal branches? Would the Greens, suffer, well the Democrats, you know what happened to them?

And on and on. It was mainstream Australian political commentary at its usual worst, devoid of ideas, insight, or any anchoring to the greater political and social movements of the world. The cynical and intellectually limited people who make up the bulk of the mainstream press gallery are instantly at sea when dealing with a political movement that is effective in the mainstream and yet connected to a wider and more comprehensive movement. When they look at the Greens, they are as the colour-blind looking on a Jackson Pollock — they can discern general shapes but none of the real essence.

So the story, repeated ceaselessly across all media, has been one of a crude factional split between the so-called “greenies” — identified with Brown, Milne and one or two others — versus the “watermelons” — ex-Trotskyites and Communists identified with Lee Rhiannon. Adam Bandt tends to get lumped into this latter category, due to his involvement in the “Left Alliance” student group in the ’90s, and a PhD on a Marxist legal theorist, which has acquired an occult mystery status second only to the lost Gospel of St Thomas. The general story/hope of many commentators is that, without Brown’s charismatic presence, these factions will fall on each other like wolves, and the public vote will collapse.

This, it must be noted at the first, is a pretty recent reversal in the press gallery’s group think about Brown. For year he was the charisma-free, mung-bean eating, pious and ascetic, blah blah, when he was not, in the words of someone like Greg Sheridan a “sly and cunning” leader, an ideologue having maintained deep cover as a dutiful doctor and nature lover, called to politics in his mid-30s, his long “sleeper” nature as a normal human being complete. He was described, utterly erroneously, as a “deep ecologist” — one who believed in radical population reduction, deindustrialisation, etc, to fit humanity back into nature.

But this endlessly repeated narrative had to be abandoned when Brown and the Greens began to win seriously and consistently — otherwise it would be an affirmation of deep ecology itself. Furthermore, as Brown spent more time in the public eye, and became known for a plain-spokenness, an anti-charismatic speaking style, and a wry humour, the frame didn’t fit. So two new narratives were introduced. The first was that Brown was the reasonable man holding back the deep Greens he had hitherto been accused of membership of. Now he was the guy in the suit, fending off the bush crazies who would come into town ahead of the Greens AGMs, take over the party, nominate a whale to the Senate, and mandate vegan dog food.

This story didn’t last a hugely long time either — once Brown was joined by more than one other Senator, and it became clear that their concerns were more than merely environmental, the non-emergence of the ferals had to be explained. By the mid-2000s, the Greens had been reshaped by external events — the refugee crisis and the war on terror. Standing firm against the “emergency” politics of both, they earned a decisive switch from a whole social class who had been wavering between they and Labour for most of a decade. The “cultural producer” class — policy workers, teachers, culture and knowledge creators — those who formed the base of the Labor Left for a couple of decades (after the dissolution of the old industrial left), once they were convinced of the Greens bona fides, switched across and didn’t come back. The solidity of the Greens also dealt a death-blow to the Democrats, as a whole tranche of somewhat more culturally conventional leftists and social liberals made the decisive switch from the old party to the new.

So a third narrative was needed. Brown now became not merely a bulwark against craziness, but a rule-proving exception — a brave and wise man of the people, the Green who wasn’t a Green, the adult in the room. He was now someone to be supported in his lonely struggle against the Red Regiments surging into the ranks of the placid and gentle Greens. As NSW state member Lee Rhiannon, whose past had attracted little attention hitherto, prepared to enter the Senate, her past membership of the born-moribund pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia (it had split from the CPA in 1972), became a focus of manufactured obsession.The attack on Rhiannon was full or ironies — the Australian Right is currently full of people like Christopher Pearson and Keith Windschuttle who rejected SPA’s line as hopelessly moderate, and enthusiastically supported the Chinese cultural revolution and Pol Pot’s auto-genocidal Kampuchea. In today’s Oz, another screed on Green “watermelons” is cheek-by-jowl with a piece on New Guinea by Helen Hughes, who was a member of the CPA during its mid-’60s remnant Stalinist period. Then, she advocated revolution in New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia. Now she advocates withdrawal of aid, compulsory imposition of individual land tenure, whether people want it or not. The Stalinist impulse, the adamantine certainty about reconstructing people’s lives survives wherever the politics ends up — yet you won’t see any exposes of Hughes’ past politics in the Oz.

However, it was also true that the attitude of the small but active and influential Marxist “far-left” to the Greens had changed. Having made various serio-comic attempts to create a unified electoral bloc, and gaining about 1% of the vote, this was abandoned in favour of supporting or even joining the Greens. By and large this wasn’t a strategy of “entrism” as practised by Trotskyite groups in UK Labour in the ’80s, but it was an attempt to give activist backbone to a party whose branches were often composed of nice people, wanting to make the world a better place, and yet as dippy as a three-tier chocolate fountain. The increased effectiveness of the Greens over the past decades has come to a significant degree from the tried-and-tested organisational skills many of these people brought to the party.

The rise of Rhiannon, and of a red phalanx allowed the Right to construct a simple narrative of red versus green. The “reds” in this analysis were watermelons — they allegedly had no real concern for the Green causes they wrapped themselves in, using the party only as a vehicle for a century-old Marxist struggle. The idea that Marxists might believe that the destruction of the planet as an entity supporting human life might constitute a genuine historical emergency, and an inevitable consequence of capitalist alienation, was too complex to understand (and would require the acknowledgement that there was a genuine historical emergency), and would involve recognising them as full human beings. So the mad conspiratorial theories became obsessively dominating.

The red/green pseudo-split underestimated the degree of environmental concern on the left — and also the degree of leftist critique on the Brown/green side. The green Greens had never been indifferent to the idea that capitalism, by its very nature, must expand its productive base to retain its level of profitability, and that this eventually brings it into conflict with social and natural life — the movement globally, had simply rejected doctrinaire notions of class struggle, and revolutionary socialism. Green politics is implicitly social democratic/democratically socialist in that it believes that the key production decisions — output levels, pollution levels and costs, etc — should be in democratic hands (whether through the state or interlinked co-operatives or a hundred other possibilities), rather than set by capital, and enforced by an unquestioning growth state.

Furthermore, the notion of a simple red/green split obscured the most interesting development of a “third force” within the Greens — the post-Marxist leftism represented by Adam Bandt and a half-dozen leading figures who entered the Greens (many as senior advisers) in the 2000s, and began to reshape its politics. For the dim-bulb depress gallery, there was only one Marxism — far-left Trotskyism, with its political schema of classes, labour theory of value, etc, essentially unchanged since before the First World War. But the “Left Alliance” group with which the “Bandt faction” had been involved since the ’90s had constituted itself in direct opposition to this sort of Marxism. Using theorists such as Ernesto LaClau, Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and others, there has been a long-standing attempt to theorise a world dominated by intellectual production, global fluidity, the changed role of culture in personal formation, etc. A pretty clear statement as to how this approach to the world fits with a green philosophy was contained in Bandt’s maiden speech, republished in The Age, in which he affirmed that a Green politics of collective ownership of the planet fits into a wider notion of radical equality — which then necessitates a commitment to same-s-x marriage. Rather than being a grab-bag of progressive policies, this approach puts a whole series of social and environmental policies on a common ground. It’s a philosophy with which the Greens can go consistently into the future.

What’s most noticeable is that this “third force” Greens faction’s ideas fit more neatly with the Green Greens rather than the Red Greens they are supposed to be in alliance with. The Bandt faction want to distance themselves as much as possible from old crude anti-imperialist struggles — such as the pro-Palestine BDS campaigns in NSW, on the grounds that left politics can no longer be squeezed into such simplistic strait-jackets. Ditto, the Bandt faction support for involvement in Libya, which was crucial to the party adopting the stance in full. Interestingly none of this complexity appeared in Sally Neighbour’s one-dimensional article on the Greens in The Monthly, which brought that publication’s obsessions to the issue, and missed the wider story. Indeed, the major factional struggle in the future will be between the Bandt greens and the old red Greens, something the MSM has missed entirely.

The Greens have nearly 40 years continuous history in one form or another; they are part of a global movement — which they did much to foster — which has held government in numerous places. They have a deepening and expanding philosophy which makes factions possible without tearing the party apart; they have a class base. I reckon they will survive the departure of their key figure. Whether the MSM depress gallery can survive their continued existence remains to be seen.

And one last piece from the SMH - Bob Brown hikes off into his political sunset.
THE first time I visited Bob's old shack in Liffey in northern Tasmania, I was struck by the now famous sign on the front fence reading ''Trespassers Welcome''. Spending that night out there by myself I heard movement nearby and wondered if someone was in the back shed. I mentioned this to Brown when I saw him later and he confirmed that there was a homeless man camping out back.

It spoke to me about the kind of man he is: someone whose actions match his words.

Bob Brown announced on Friday that he would resign from Australian politics, as the party he has led for 16 years is at its prime. He exits as one of the great survivors of Australian politics, having endured six changes of Labor leadership and four on the Liberal side since he was first elected to the Senate in 1996 after 10 years in Tasmania's State Parliament.

The reasons for Brown's departure seem simple enough - he is not getting any younger and feels confident the Greens are a strong enough team to continue into the future. Knowing Brown, this is a decision he will not have arrived at lightly.

Brown has recently rearranged his life in Tasmania, given his famous bush property in Liffey to Bush Heritage Australia (an organisation he founded in 1991 that has gone on to preserve close to 1 million hectares of bushland around Australia) and moved to the idyllic farming town of Cygnet in the Huon Valley. ...

This connection between the local and the political has never left him. In later years, when Brown was drawn into the battles over Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam, he emerged somewhat reluctantly as an environmental leader. He still suffered from crippling nerves at the thought of public speaking, and was always more of a political figure by necessity, rather than being driven by ego or lust for power. These early experiences ensured he has always retained his empathy for the underdog.

The idea of transformation is central to Brown's story. Just as he has had to overcome personal demons and transform himself into the man we know today, he has been able to take that power of transformation into national and even international political spheres. During the Howard years, Brown was regularly called the ''de facto leader of the opposition'' and was frequently a lone political voice against that government's involvement in the Iraq war and increasingly draconian refugee policies. He told mass rallies around the country in 2003 that, ''The prime minister has never, ever been given a mandate by the people of Australia to go to war with Iraq. The prime minister has abused the terms of freedom and democracy in his own country.''

Brown's words cut through the cynicism that many Australians feel towards politicians and gave much needed voice and heart to a movement that would become one of the largest anti-war movements in history.

Although the focus of Brown's activism has changed over the years, the fundamentals have remained: the attempt to keep in check the forces of rampant industrialisation, inject humanism and compassion into national politics, and preserve what is left in the natural environment for the sake of future generations.

Even from his enemies there is grudging respect. It's telling that although News Ltd papers in particular have attacked and criticised Brown at every turn, The Australian recently voted him the most influential politician in the country.

He denies that the viciousness of recent attacks is a factor in his decision to resign. ... Such attacks are not surprising. One of his favourite quotes is from Machiavelli: ''If you want to change the world, prepare to feel the full force of the reaction against you from those that have the most to lose.''


I voted green last election, but truth is, although unfashionable, I like the Carbon Tax, I like the Mining tax, I like the income tax cuts, I like the company tax cuts, I like the R&D credit, and I'll be voting Labor next election. They deserve something for the pain they've gone through for policies I like.

Well - I'm fairly certain that Labor wouldn't have implemented the carbon tax if the Greens hadn't had the balance of power so I give them no credit there for anything other than opportunism (at least they didn't / couldn't stiff the greens they way they did Andrew Wilkie).

The other things are OK I guess, though not enough to make me switch my vote.

Either way, anyone is better than Tony Abbott, so just don't vote for the Libs (other than Wentworth residents)...

I agree, they wouldn't have. But then they're the ones who are paying for it with the torrents of foul abuse on the comment pages of every main stream media outlet in the land, so I'm starting to feel sorry for them.

I suspect a fair bit of that is people paid to comment - I figure a Gina Rhinehart or Clive Palmer could easily subcontract an Indian company to have coverage of the whole Australian news media...

http://www.xkcd.com/1019/. It all just pushes the media further to the right as journalists get bombarded with all of this crazy opinion...

I think some are paid but there is a reactionary fringe out there who truly believe this guff (I know some of them and their beliefs are genuine even though they are offensive and/or nuts most of the time).

Ben, you can still vote 1 Greens, 2 ALP you know. That way, the ALP will still get your (lower house) vote, but strained through the Greens.

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