There is a lot to celebrate in the legacy of retiring Greens leader Senator Bob Brown. Above all, he has been central to holding together the most successful new electoral party project in Australia that sits significantly to the left of the traditional parties of government, Labor and Liberal-National. The Greens won 1.7 million votes out of 13 million voters in the last federal election.
Brown’s almost Gandhian image — a legacy of his activist days against the Franklin Dam in Tasmania and his unflappable mild manner in public appearances — has undoubtedly played a role in keeping together a party that many people hope can bring real change in Australia.
He has the deep respect of many for being an activist who was prepared to be arrested for his beliefs. He also stood up to nasty personal attacks throughout his career as a consequence of being Australia’s first openly gay parliamentarian.
But beyond deserved accolades that Brown will receive, a real question is whether the Greens can grow beyond Brown’s political legacy — because that is where the Greens need to go to live up to those hopes for real change.
At his April 13 press conference, Brown said his greatest political legacy was to build a party that had its sights firmly on becoming a party of government.
But as former Greens NSW MLC Sylvia Hale said in 2010, the Greens still face a choice between being a minor irritant or really challenging the mainstream parties.
The Greens’ first big choice, she said, was to resist being just a party of environmental concerns. Despite the origins of Brown and the Tasmanian Greens (which have effectively led the Australian Greens up to now), it has to be said that the Greens have transcended this first challenge.
The Greens have stood opposed Liberal and Labor’s policy of imperialist war on Iraq and Afghanistan. They stood against the racist and inhumane refugee policies of the big parties, which detain thousands of asylum seekers — including about 500 children — without trial in concentration camps around Australia.
The Greens have opposed the big parties' pro-mining stance and backed the rights of workers.
Under Brown, the Greens have resisted the pressure to capitulate on Western wars, unlike the German Greens and other European Green parties.
But Hale said the bigger challenge was for the Greens to recognise the real class divide in society and the neoliberal capitalist roots of the biggest social and environmental problems we face. Taking on this challenge would mean the Greens standing up to the neoliberal, market orthodoxy.
The big parties’ embrace of neoliberalism is the source of their growing credibility crisis. Hale said for the Greens to become a party that can win big social changes it needs to reject the neoliberal course and move beyond narrow parliamentary politics.
The Greens have not yet taken up this challenge. The party’s focus is mostly on winning parliamentary seats and working within the existing system of political representation.
As the Greens have increased their representation at local, state and federal levels, the party has come under pressure to support neoliberal measures such as cuts to social services, outsourcing and privatisation.
The Greens have formed coalition governments twice in Tasmania with the Labor Party and both these governments have implemented neoliberal measures. In several local governments, Greens councillors have also backed neoliberal attacks.
Recently, more left wing Greens MPs in NSW have come under attack in their party from the right, particularly over the question of Palestine.
So the political legacy of Brown’s leadership is mixed. His successor, Christine Milne, said part of the way forward for the Greens would be to build alliances with “progressive business in Australia” against the “vested interests of the old economy”.
The new Greens leader said the mining companies were a key part of the “old vested interests”. But who are these progressive capitalists she is appealing to?
All sectors of big business are interlinked, at the very least through finance capital that shuffles investment — including about $1.3 trillion in workers’ superannuation funds. Directly or indirectly, all big capitalists have their money invested in the biggest mining boom in Australian history. A policy of appealing to “progressive business in Australia” is doomed to fail.
Milne’s outlook is not a marked shift to the right for the Greens in parliament. It underlies the Greens’ backdown on the ALP’s second plan to introduce an emissions trading scheme to deal with the global climate change crisis — a crisis most governments around the world have failed to seriously address.
Back in 2009, Milne said of the former Rudd Labor government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS): “The Greens oppose the CPRS as it stands not because it is too weak but because it will actually point Australia in the wrong direction with little prospect of turning it around in the timeframe within which emissions must peak. This is why we say it is not just a failure, but it locks in failure.”
Milne now defends Gillard’s carbon price as “the vital first step towards tackling the climate crisis” although it is little different from the CPRS.
This capitulation to the ALP helped demobilise what had until 2010 been a growing mass movement for the urgently needed measures to address the climate change crisis, including a shift to renewable energy in 10 to 15 years. Last year’s big climate rallies turned into cheer squads for the Gillard ALP government’s “carbon pricing” scheme and the grassroots climate movement dwindled.
This is one of the most negative political legacies of Brown’s leadership of the Greens.
If Australia — one of the world’s richest but most polluting nations — is going to rise to the climate challenge, as Brown urged in his resignation press conference, then the Greens will need to go beyond Brown’s political legacy of support for the ALP's dodgy climate change policy and chart a new course.