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Growing Hopes for a Green Sweep

4 minute read

Sitting on the front verandah of his modest weatherboard cottage in the sun, looking out over a blaze of daffodils, describing in his even, unhurried voice the eating habits of crows and the swallows’ nests under the eaves, Bob Brown is in his element. After buying this spectacularly beautiful piece of land at Liffey, in central Tasmania, in 1973, Brown lived here for a decade, choosing to do without phone or hot water, cooking in pots on the open fire, and cycling 100 km every weekend to work shifts as a general practitioner in Launceston.

Back then, after a week-long fast in 1976 on the chilly summit of Hobart’s Mount Wellington to protest against the visit of an American nuclear warship, Brown had a growing profile in Tasmania as a slightly eccentric, shy but deeply earnest young man. At Liffey he tried to write philosophy and “put forward ideas for a better world,” but spent many days on this same verandah, in his overcoat as the snow fell around the cottage, despairing “that it was all too much.”

Bob Brown today is a very different man. Almost three decades after entering politics and eight years as a federal senator, the leader of the Australian Greens believes his party’s time is coming. After doubling their vote share to nearly 5% at the 2001 federal poll, and with the Democrats’ vote tipped to slide again, Brown is predicting another doubling of his party’s vote, to about 1 million. What changed for him at Liffey all those years ago, he says, was choosing to get involved: “To be part of the decision-making process is much more enjoyable than being sidelined and feeling powerless and depressed.” His grandfather, father, twin sister Janice and two brothers may have been country police officers, but it was Brown’s role, and arrest along with 1,500 others, in the protest blockade to save the Franklin River in 1982-83 that made him a national name. Still an unpolished orator, he learned then that being terrified of public speaking didn’t always matter. “People will listen much more carefully if there’s a hint of nervousness in what you’re saying,” he says now.

“They’re galvanized by it.”

It’s this mix of political canniness with a lack of political slickness that helps explain the extraordinary pulling power of this 59-year-old, softly spoken former school captain, who puts on a brown cardigan as the sun starts lowering over the verandah. He is regarded as a hero by many of the Greens’ mainly young members, and, by an increasing number of other voters in an electorate largely cynical about their leaders, as principled and consistent.

His critics label his policies on issues like drug reform loopy, dangerous or even, as Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson described them, communist. Brown shrugs off such attacks as proof of the Greens’ growing influence, as he did the outrage that followed his interjection, along with fellow Greens senator Kerry Nettle, during President George W. Bush’s address to federal parliament last year with a protest about the Australian detainees at Guantnamo Bay.

“That was very much about the Greens as a new democratic force in global politics who are determined that democracy won’t be usurped by the powerful and the wealthy.”

Brown talks a lot about democracy, and about the need to free it from the control of corporate influence, arguing, for example, for bans on corporate donations to political parties and publishing records of meetings between politicians and corporate lobbyists. “People want other values than just the market fundamentalism of the age,” he says. It’s not often you hear politicians extolling the role of government in championing beauty, but Brown’s happy to.

“Beauty, wildness, inspiration, adventure, the rights of future generations, the rights indeed of all life on this planet to have room to exist, these matters are reduced to zero on the economic scale.”

From an essentially environmental agenda, the Greens’ platform has grown to encompass many of the social justice issues that were once seen as the domain of the Labor Party, and after consistently opposing the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, Brown says the Greens’ opposition to the Iraq war has won them many more converts among older voters. As the Liffey river dances and gurgles at the bottom of the slope, Brown says he’s confident this will be a breakthrough election for the Greens, who one day want to be a serious contender for government. And how will the party safeguard its ideals along the way? “If further down the line the Greens got seduced by power or money, as the older parties have,” he says, “others will come along. The values of humanity and concern for the planet are eternal.”

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