Bob Brown is the Australian Greens. Whether the present tense can convert smoothly to past, and the statement become “Bob Brown was the Australian Greens”, is a question Christine Milne and others will have to answer in due course.
More importantly for the moment, Brown is the most underrated politician in Australia. Others have noted that he fatally undermined Julia Gillard’s Labor government by suborning the Prime Minister into an alliance with the Greens she didn’t need after the August 2010 federal election. Labor and Gillard will pay a political price for that; its quantum is as yet unknown.
But the mainstream federal political parties cannot dismiss the impact of the Green vote. It is not just an environmental vote and far from being one simply for the tree huggers. The Australian Greens are just as dangerous for the Coalition as they are for Labor. This is not necessarily a bad thing: politics requires continuous renewal and Australia’s history is replete with examples of non-performing monopolies, duopolies, cosy little cartels, and idiotic, largely self-serving designs to take us back to the past.
It is far too early to say, and it is disingenuous to do so anyway, that the Green vote has peaked and that, with or without Brown, the party had already begun at least a cyclical decline. The Queensland and New South Wales state elections, which tossed out appallingly atrophied Labor governments, cannot safely be cited in support of that argument. Voters in both those states were on a mission to eliminate Labor as a state government party – these things are cyclical too and not confined to Labor – and not many of them wanted to bother stopping by the Greens on their way to punishing Labor.
At federal level, the parameters are different. Gillard and her government – in part quite unfairly – are the objects of opprobrium. Gillard’s broken carbon tax promise – Brown’s greatest poisoned chalice bequest – is fatal. The disgraceful refusal of the Prime Minister to deal as she should with NSW federal Labor MP Craig Thompson is yet another example of her fatal unwillingness to recognise unpalatable political fact.
But while Tony Abbott’s Coalition is riding high in the opinion polls, that doesn’t necessarily indicate they are a certain bet on Election Day, whenever that is. It doesn’t matter of course that Labor characterises Abbott as “Mr No”. Public politics is all about scoring quick points – many of them vacuous – in pursuit of a catchy tabloid headline. He does that well, chiefly, though he needs to keep himself in check.
Voters know that on the preponderance of legislation (which is after all the principal business of government – it’s not the morning news call) the government and the opposition are cooperative and mutually supportive. As Christopher Pyne said on Sunday (Insiders on ABC on April 15), the opposition has supported 87 percent of Labor’s legislation in the federal parliament. The mortal combat is not on process and implementation; it is on winning the vote, on securing power.
Most people understand this. Many more Liberal-inclined voters than might be imagined do not in fact see the Greens as a fatal threat to themselves or to the nation. The same applies to many natural Labor voters. Mainstream politicians still cling to the theory that there’s a substantial rusted-on vote base. The clear signs of today’s politics indicate that this is not the case.
Under Bob Brown the Greens became a national force in Australian politics. It’s true they were assisted in this process by Cheryl Kernot’s treachery while leader of the other potential third force, the now defunct Australian Democrats. But it would wrong – and very foolish – to see the Greens as an aberration, an irritant that the combined electoral appeal of the major parties will eventually vitiate.
The argument over the carbon tax is an instance. It’s a foolish tax on many scores – not least in being just another tax imposed by government (any government, the point is not political) on its own fundamentally rapacious Peter and Paul programme that institutionalises a sleight of hand revenue versus spending regime.
Yet the related argument – that the world (which includes Australia, despite the efforts of some other fringe politicians to pretend otherwise) must move sensibly and as quickly as possible to fully renewable and non-polluting technologies – is one that resonates with almost everyone.
Brown’s political achievement swung off the back of this popular movement. He capitalised very skilfully on the innate common sense of the electorate. Voters don’t want a carbon tax (who would?) but they do want their government to move forward with emerging technologies. Climate change cannot be denied (climate is a dynamic process that’s been with us ever since we cooled off a bit following the Big Bang) though you can argue over its direct cause and whether human activity has had any measurably deleterious effect. The policy imperative is clear, however: just as the climate changes, so must we adapt. Pollution is the greater threat, since it is immediate and – albeit on a relatively small scale in Australia itself – locally sited. Anything that reduces atmospheric emissions is to be welcomed, whether or not the underlying issue is seen by some as the threat of Armageddon-style climate change if nothing is done.
This is the genius of the political green movement, captured in spades by the former doctor from Tasmania who parlayed opposition to invidious development in his isolated island state into a national platform. His achievement deserves recognition, even if you do not think it deserves applause.
Bob Brown’s legacy, if new leader Christine Milne and deputy leader Adam Bandt prove to have the ticker to maintain it, is to have entrenched the Greens in Australia’s political landscape. For all sorts of reasons, however one chooses to vote, that is a good thing.