The Improbable Politician

G Magazine (issue #21, July/August 2009)

Nature has been at the heart of inspiration for Green's Senator Bob Brown. It's where he's found his purpose, drive and courage.

Senator Bob Brown

"Looking after the environment is preventative medicine," says Brown, who sees wilderness as essential to human health.

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Before diagnosing the planet's medical problems - principally obesity from over-eating fossil fuels - Senator Bob Brown was a doctor, a local GP. He worked in Sydney, Canberra, Perth, and London before arriving in Launceston at the age of twenty-eight. He'd accepted a three-month contract to fill in for a local MD.

Then his life changed forever - as a result of rafting down the Franklin River. From that buffeting in one of Australia's most beautiful landscapes he was suddenly thrown into the rough and tumble of a seven-year battle to stop the Franklin being destroyed by damming. In the process a quiet, unassuming young man helped create the world's first 'green' political party. Nature has been the inspiration for Brown. It provides his purpose, gives him his drive and renews his courage.

In 1980 he officially saw his last human patient, and soon afterwards relinquished his medical registration. "Looking after the environment is preventative medicine," says Brown, who sees wilderness, wild places, nature, the outdoors - call it what you will - as essential to human health.


First elected in 1983 to Tasmania's State Government, Brown served for ten years before taking a break to travel and support new green groups. It wasn't until 1992 that the political party we now know as the Australian Greens was officially formed. In 1996, the year that Paul Keating lost, Brown won a senate seat and John Howard began his 12-year prime ministership.

Although political parties designated 'minor' have had a major influence on federal and state governments most have had a short shelf-life. Having kept the ALP out of office for a decade, the Democratic Labor Party has withered. Having caused electoral panic, One Nation is dying in the gutter of its own creation. And Don Chipp's Australian Democrats, having kept the bastards honest for quite some time, is floundering. The Greens however, are enduring - and that's a tribute to Bob Brown, surely one of the most improbable figures in our political history. Few would accuse him of being charismatic - usually he's self-effacing and awkward in the spotlight. But perhaps that's the secret of his appeal and political longevity. That and the increasing urgency of the issues he identified in his maiden speech to the senate in September 1996.

It was one of the first great clarion calls on global warming and to read it thirteen years later fills you with a mixture of sadness and anger. Had the parliament been listening, we'd have had a head start on the crisis, before the planet itself became a political football.

Democracy or guns

"The choice is clear," says Brown. "It's democracy or guns." And he's not referring to Tasmania's most powerful and influential company at the centre of every environmental dispute and still trying to build a pulp mill. He's talking about weapons and war. Bob sees politics as the apocalyptic struggle between power and the populace. Democracy is an ideal that has difficulties with its definition - as there are so many different models. Brown believes that the classic idea of 'one man one vote' is hard to beat. And he'd like to see it working universally. In 2003 he proposed the Senate:
(a) supports global democracy based on the principle of 'one person, one vote, one value'; and
(b) supports the vision of a global parliament which empowers all the world's people equally to decide on matters of international significance.

"People have to have an equal say in a global democracy. There are 76 senators and only I and my green colleague voted in favour of this idea. When I walked out of the chamber after the vote, a cynical senator came up to me and said, 'Bob, don't you know how many people there are in China?'"

Brown does know - but sees the billion Chinese as individual human beings, not an awesome statistic. "Our future is together or not at all," says Brown. And everyone on Earth is entitled to a vote on issues like climate change, he adds.

Brown, the improbable politician, has chosen to make his mark within a political system he knows is deeply flawed, where the ideals of democracy are distorted by the manipulations of the mighty, the power of the interest groups and the affiliations of the major parties. Under his leadership he's tried to present the Greens as being different in character, and prevent the party from being destroyed by factionalism. "People say the Greens are split," he complains, "as if business is never split!" And to a significant extent he's managed past conflicts. Even the party's worst enemies - and they're found on both the Labor and Coalition side of politics - acknowledge the Greens have focus and discipline. The Greens also have been assisted by the growing concern over climate change and increasing disaffection from major parties, which helped deliver a million primary votes to many Greens candidates in the 2007 election.

Game plan

Brown does not see his political right or expectations as being limited to environmental issues. He's been outspoken on the treatment of refugees, human rights, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he received international notoriety by shouting at George W. Bush when Prime Minister Howard invited the President to speak in the Australian parliament. Brown saw this guest appearance as being unconstitutional and all but threw his shoes.

Politics has as many rules as sport, both written and unwritten and Brown, having been an elected member for nearly a quarter century, has been around long enough to know the game. "But to call it a game underrates politics," he says. "It's more than a chess game. We have to keep our feet on the ground and retain our compassion." And he wants to replace the 'old politics' with a new model.

"Old politics focuses on economic planning. Should it be controlled or left to the market? The economy should be at the service of sustainability. At the moment it is the other way round."

Helping the world understand we live in an ecology, not an economy is at the core of sustainable debate. But one of the big problems according to Brown is that, "Advancement in business and politics is easier for those who tread on people's toes. The materialists have the world by the throat!"

Regarding climate change Brown says, "There isn't going to be divine intervention. And too many politicians say, 'climate change can't be fixed.' Some have no vision. My job is as a paving stone up the path to a new green order. We're part of a global movement."

"If the foundations of our economy become truly sustainable then what the future holds will be new types of jobs, a workforce that will be unrecognisable to us today. And Green politics won't be on the edges because the shift will re-centre the status quo."

With most governments taking small steps or backward steps to reverse the impacts of climate change it's inevitable that people who understand the issue are becoming increasingly angered.

Many environmental activists, trained in confrontational techniques, are often trying to out green each other. So keeping the peace amongst activists, to have them put aside their differences and work cohesively is one of Brown's greatest challenges. Coalitions the world over have failed when they fracture along lines of zealotry. Pauline Hanson and her One Nation was a case in point. So is the US Republican Party in the era of Obama - reduced to an increasingly right-wing rump. Brown remains optimistic that the problems can be solved through the healing powers of democracy.

"There is goodness in human beings," says Brown repeatedly, dismissing charges of naivety.

Looking ahead

Admitting to times of depression, Brown insists the natural world keeps him sane. For decades he's owned a little white wooden cottage beneath a spectacular Tasmanian escarpment. It's a place with no mobile phone reception and is only used occasionally these days as a refuge for writing. Eventually it will be made into a public reserve.

But at Randalls Bay, near Sygnet, in an old gravel quarry over looking the sea, a new home has been imagined and planned with his partner of 13 years Paul Thomas. Building has begun and they hope to be settled by Christmas. He describes it as a "small house, made out of Timbercrete, with solar hot water and geo-thermal floor heating."

Brown takes photographs in his limited spare time and Paul had organised exhibitions to raise money towards the $240,000 owed to Forestry Tasmania, costs incurred after he lost his court battle to stop logging in the Wielangta Forest.
Little wonder you'll often hear Brown deride the 'the rich and powerful' for having "too much influence." However, some in that category have been keen to help with his legal woes. After national publicity claiming that Brown faced bankruptcy and consequently the loss of his Senate seat, philanthropist Dick Smith offered to pay the entire bill. But thousands of the less rich and powerful had already sent Brown donations - so much, in fact, that there'll be monies left over to help fund more forest protection campaigns.

It's this sort of show of support that gives Brown hope. "I used to walk down the street and people would come up and say, you 'effing so and so'. Now they come up to me and say, 'you're doing a good job'."

More information:
Bob Brown's maiden speech www.aph.gov.au/Senate/senators/homepages/first_speech/sfs-QD4.htm
Bob's fundraising photography: www.greenart.com.au