Bob Brown: Not quite revolutionary

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Bob Brown speaks at a Melbourne rally against Mandatory Sentencing laws. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Bob Brown — environmental activist, turned Senator — has loomed large on the Australian political landscape for nearly three decades. In 1983, when the first issue of Outrage, a new gay and lesbian magazine, hit the streets, I was on the editorial board. We considered our interview with Brown to be something of a scoop. Brown had come out publicly as a gay man on This Day Tonight in 1976. However, a condition of his interview with Outrage was that he did not want to discuss his sexuality. He argued that any discussion would provide further ammunition for the homophobes who ran a smear campaign and distributed “Brown is a Green Queen” balloons throughout the Tasmanian electorate.

Twenty years later, Brown is a little more relaxed.  He now lives with his partner of eight years, Paul Thomas. The pair exchanged rings bought from a street merchant in Indonesia which they still wear today. Brown recalls, “we were on the beach at Lombok and a young fellow pushed us very hard to buy. It was just a mutual thing where we agreed to get two and give one to each other. After we bought them for $20 the fellow broke down and cried, because the sale meant he wouldn’t be beaten by his employer and had enough money to buy food.” Of his partner’s politics, Thomas says, “Bob is a Green who happens to be Pink, not a Pink who happens to be Green!”

Bob Brown’s experience of growing up in the 1950s and his long struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality is a strong theme running throughout a new biography, Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary, by journalist James Norman. The biography successfully gets beyond the public image of the Australian Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, who is frequently branded the “defacto leader of the opposition” in a political scene where any genuine differences between the Coalition and Labor are increasingly hard to spot.

Biographer James Norman based the book on public sources as well as interviews with Brown’s friends, Paul Thompson and Judy Henderson, Greens activists Ben Oquist and Drew Hutton, Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group leaders Rodney Croome and Nick Toonen, anti-dam campaigner, Deni Hammill, and Brown’s partner, Paul Thomas. Brown himself kept at “arms length” from the project, leaving Norman the task of seeking to “paint an intimate portrait of a reluctant subject.”

Norman succeeds brilliantly. The chapters about Brown’s childhood and teenage years make compelling reading. Brown’s father was a policeman in New South Wales. The family were firmly in the Liberal/Country party tradition, and the figure of Robert Menzies loomed large in young Bob’s life. Brown was academically gifted and loved sport. Yet Norman describes Brown as a “a troubled kid.”

One struggle for Brown was challenging his religious upbringing. His rational questioning eventually led him to adopt an increasingly secular view of the world. Brown was also painfully shy and struggled with an awareness of his homosexuality from the age of 12.

He consulted psychiatrists and experienced years of private hell. He suffered the indignity of being injected with testosterone and was the victim of early Australian aversion therapy trials. In a political period when the religious right is credited with re-electing George Bush and a Senator from the Christian fundamentalist Family First Party joins Brown in the Senate, the public recounting of Brown’s early life experience is a wake up call: we cannot return to pre-gay liberation days.

The well structured biography recounts a journey. After graduating from medical school Doctor Brown remained politically conservative, twice attempting to join the Liberal Party. He was only “saved” by organisational glitches.

The Vietnam War was a key radicalising experience. Brown was required to medically assess young men drafted to fight in Vietnam. He took the liberty of “bending the rules” and used his position to do what he considered “morally appropriate.” For those who did not want to go, he was able to find a reason, “citing conditions such as ‘acne’ as medical grounds for recommending against compulsory conscription.”

Brown spent a year living and working in London which consolidated his changed perspective. He returned to Australia in 1972, got a job as a locum in Launceston, and made a firm commitment to work for social change.

Brown went on to lead the Tasmanian Wilderness Society in the successful battle to prevent the damming of the wild and very beautiful Franklin River in South West Tasmania. The two chapters which tell the story — Franklin Daze and Thick of the Torrent — are fascinating reading as we contemplate a Howard Government with a Senate majority. It was a rollercoaster ride — governments changed and changed again.  The issues were fought out in the media, on the streets, in State and Federal Parliaments, through a referendum, in the courts and through mass civil disobedience. During this campaign Brown ended up both in jail — refusing to accept draconian bail conditions which would prevent him rejoining the blockade — and as a member of the Tasmanian Parliament!

Brown advocated mass civil disobedience, arguing for the need to break bad laws: “in a world where laws are made for money and property, those of us who hold, in even higher esteem, values such as beauty, naturalness and obligation to future generations, are left to challenge the law or defy it. After all, laws are not made in heaven, but in parliaments where the vested interests of the wealthy often usurp public interest and common sense.”

Ironically it was Brown’s civil disobedience which gave him the public profile and respect to get him re-elected to the Tasmanian Parliament as a Green independent. In 1989 he was re-elected with four others, denying a clear majority to either major party. Norman describes in very rosy terms the achievements of the Green independents during the period of Green-ALP Accord. Yet this section of the book is disappointing as it fails to address the contradictions that Brown and his fellow Greens faced. Certainly a range of environmental concessions were won. However, the biography makes no comment about the political cost. The Green independents stuck to its Accord signed with the ALP for 15 months until Labor eventually broke it by failing to honour agreed woodchip limits. The book is silent on what sticking to the accord actually meant: voting for the ALP’s massive budget cuts and supporting the sacking of more than 2,000 public sector workers.

After being elected to the Senate in 1996, Brown considered similar “trade offs” on the question of support for the full privatisation of Telstra in return for environmental concessions. However, Norman’s biography is again silent on this, preferring to focus on the significance of the media coming to The Greens for comment on a non-environmental issue.

Norman’s decision to airbrush unpalatable facts out of the picture robs the biography of the chance to explore key questions of how the social change that Brown so passionately and sincerely craves is to be achieved. Brown’s agenda seems to be a process of getting more and more Greens elected to parliament.

However, The Greens now have more than 50 councillors elected to local government across the country and won four out of nine positions on the Yarra Council in inner Melbourne, enabling the election of the first Greens mayor in Australia. But, once faced with running a local council, the team of Greens did what any group of councillors accepting the logic of capitalism would do — be fiscally responsible and balance the books. One voter commented in The Melbourne Times, “a council supposedly run by The Greens and the left wing of the ALP, why are they running a more rightwing budget than Peter Costello? If I’d wanted an ultra-rightwing council I would have voted for it.”

Norman sees Brown as a “revolutionary.” In his introduction he argues, “the politics Bob Brown brings to the table are the politics of democratic revolution; the politics of sustainability over capitalism; of compassion over profit. His are the politics of optimism. Despite his mild-mannered veneer, Bob Brown will be remembered as one of Australia’s true revolutionaries.” While I found Norman’s biography a good read, I can’t agree with this assertion. Bob Brown describes The Greens as a social democratic party. He states clearly that he is not a socialist, while being critical of those who “only associate with the big end of town.” Brown argues, “it’s absolutely inevitable that there will be a popular movement to oppose market fundamentalism and extreme capitalism, that division we have between wealthy and poor people now.”

Bob Brown’s aim is to take some of the nastier edges off capitalism. But this goal — no matter how sincerely held — is essentially utopian. Rather than becoming less nasty, the capitalist system is becoming increasingly more brutal and forced to rely on war and curtailing democratic rights. Almost 3 billion of the world’s 5.6 billion people live on less than two dollars a day. This is the logic of a system which is unplanned and based on the need to constantly drive down labour costs and increase profits. The capitalist system faces the impossible situation of requiring constant growth in a world where markets are choked and workers are increasingly pauperised, insecure and unable to purchase the products they produce. To survive, the capitalist system is forced to become more extreme.

Brown’s vision is of a global green movement to soften these extremes. He supports the movement against corporate globalisation and joined the S11 protests against the World Economic Forum meeting at Crown Casino, but he accepts the proposition that there are both bad corporations and ethical businesses.

Norman traces how Brown played a key role in the formation of a united Greens party and successfully shook off the tag of being a single-issue party, thanks to taking strong stands on the racist nature of mandatory sentencing laws, refugee rights, opposition to the war in Iraq, and support for equal rights for same-sex couples. Brown  also grabbed international headlines when he heckled George Bush during the President’s speech to the Australian Parliament by demanding the release of Australian prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Norman comments, “immediately the efforts of some ALP members at protest — the wearing of peace badges, the refusal to applaud the President — seemed weak and wimpish.”

These and other stands taken by The Greens are the reason the party has now cemented a position as being to the left of an ALP held captive to the neoliberal agenda. However, if The Greens stick to the goal of tinkering with an inherently unfair system to try to make it fair, the same fate befalls them.

Norman’s book is a fascinating look at Bob Brown, the man. A key theme is that throughout his life, Brown has continued to evolve and to question. If Brown keeps asking the question how can capitalism be made fairer, will he eventually conclude it can’t? Who knows? But one thing is certain: many Greens supporters are already asking this question, and some will conclude that the system must be fundamentally changed, not reformed. Now that’s revolutionary!

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