Guest Post: Missing the Forest for the Trees

It has been a week since Senator & leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown announced his retirement from both positions, & Senator Christine Milne as his replacement as the party’s leader. It has resulted in a news week decidedly more green in colour as journalists & commentators dissect  & analyse Brown’s legacy, 4 decades of activism & political representation, & pointedly, the impact of his resignation on the party. A key consideration, of course, has been the analysis of Christine Milne in the role of Deputy Leader, & hypothesis regarding her impact on the Greens as its leader.

 All of this is, well, completely understandable. Because there are few things the Australian media love more than a political party leadership- er, challenge? Change-over, is the better word, but let’s face it, once again, the Australian Greens have outed themselves as the glaring anomaly in the Australian political landscape.

 Firstly, because there was no challenge. The integrity & continuity of the party proper remains intact & unchanged. Australians might not recognise it. They have simply failed to understand its significance. But there it was, Brown with every ounce of class & integrity he always brings to any public appearance, & the party proper consolidated behind him. There was no challenge. The two major parties have for a very long time set the bar very low in terms of leadership change-over. More to the point, a change in leadership has had huge ramifications in terms of policy in both the ALP and the Coalition. From Howard to Turnbull to Abbott and we’ve seen three separate positions on climate change policy, particularly in the more recent change-over. Between Rudd to Gillard there was a shift (& back again) in both climate change policy regarding both the carbon tax & the MRRT. Further, at the core of the leadership change-overs has been the ad nauseum discussion, dissection & debate about who within the party is actually pulling the strings. Faceless men, factions & corporate contributors all & each playing a role in policy direction, politicians kowtowing to lobbyists, union bigwigs, Gina & Clive. Leaving the average Aussie sure of only one thing; politicians have a goal, power for its own sake, & the benefit of the fewest, either for themselves or for the puppet masters behind them, & certain of the bad taste it leaves in our mouths. On a week to week, almost day-to-day basis there is barely a reference to politics & policy without reference to broken promises, back-flips, parties bowing to pressure, liars & shifting positions.

 It seems impossible to consider a political party, consolidate around a core belief, and progressive enough to consider change of any sort as an opportunity for growth. Yet, over the last week, we’ve been given a glimpse into such a party. Is this a case of having missed the forest for the trees?

 Annabel Crabb said it beautifully in the opening paragraph of   her piece for the ABS’S The Drum ‘Bob’s bombshell a turning point for Greens‘. The fact is, there’s no previous leadership change-over at a Federal level in the party to compare to this current event. Crabb suggests another interesting point, for most, Green equals Brown, both in terms of his negotiating historic minority government agreements at a Federal level, the target conservative media has long time pinned to the leader’s back, & in terms of “the extent to which he has managed to persuade his notoriously hardline followers to accept hitherto-unthinkable concessions.” (Not that anyone wants to generalise  about the Green’s membership, much.) The question is: is it possible for Milne to live up to task she conceded “was a daunting” one?

Or is it? The truth is, Milne is being handed an entirely different party to the one Brown took to & through a myriad of firsts; in the Tasmanian parliament, the Federal Senate, not to mention the fact that Brown is a trail-blazer of the most personal kind being the first openly gay member of the Federal Parliament. Milne doesn’t need to be any of those things. As Ben Eltham pointed out in his article, Milne has an entirely different political climate to negotiate going forward, particularly in the event of a Coalition minority or majority outcome of the next Federal election. With which she has experience at a State level. More to the point, she has an entirely different party to lead. Where Crabb speaks of the green hard-liners, the party has progressed considerably, the facticity of which was better addressed by the stable polling in the high teens in terms of preferred party Federally for some time now. And the record votes for Green representatives counted Australia wide in elections since 2010. As our erstwhile eyes & ears on the ground in Liverpool, Signe Westerberg said in her blog post regarding the local NSW Greens branch meeting, the leadership change over didn’t rate a mention, given the important policy issues that needed to be discussed.

 Surprised we might have been at Brown’s announcement, but not in the new leader who has as long & as diverse experience in the party & the political arena. Certainly, there is a sadness for many as we farewell from the high profile role a visionary leader who has been a most passionate & intelligent politician where such people are thin on the ground in Canberra. But comparing Milne to Brown is not going to address the significance of the Green leadership change-over. Milne has the experience, has been Deputy of the Australian Greens, one of Brown’s closest advisors, has in recent years negotiated in the minority government environment resulting in Green’s policy outcomes being met, & represented the party in global forums.

 Like her or not, she is a passionate advocate of core Green values, she is a woman of integrity, and of her word, & no-one who has seen her speak in public, the media  or the Senate would argue she lacks the nous to lead from either a minority government position, balance of power position or from opposition. Whilst the other Woman in Power, PM Julia Gillard can scarcely convince a puppy she is a hard nosed negotiator, Milne was swept into the leadership by a confident party room and membership who are in no way confused about her ability to do just that. & in classic Milne style, she has hit the ground running, today calling out the Opposition Leader in no uncertain terms.

 The comparison should not be between Brown & Milne, but between parties. Whilst a leadership challenge can see a complete halt to policy discussion in either the ALP or the Coalition, (or, let’s face it, complete turn around in policy platforms) for the Greens, it was business as usual. They did not skip a beat, & at no point has the party had to stop to consider that the new leader will bring a host of new party sound bites. The lines are the same, the core values aren’t being called into question. No lines drawn in the party room sand, no factions, no faceless men. Just a man retiring and a woman deemed most competent moving into a new position.

Well wishes for Brown and confidence in Milne were expressed as brief comments before the matter at hand was discussed. None of the Greens representatives were hassled to declare their position. The positions was the same. There was a seamless continuation of policy debate. Senator Rachel Siewert embarked on her week of living with off only the equivalent of the Newstart Allowance, highlighting the issues faced by people looking for work and the need for an increase.

Senator Lee Rhiannon continued meeting with people in rural NSW & Senator Milne threw down the gauntlet to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, whilst maintaining the pressure in regards to sustainability & economic outcomes as outlined in Mike Seccombe’s article in The Global Mail that presents Milne with her finger firmly on the economic pulse of the nation. Just to sample some of the diverse policy passions of the Greens representatives.

 And THAT is the point. If we allow ourselves to lose focus on Brown who has been the face of the Australian Greens for so long, we might see a rich forest of talent, passion, integrity & a well spring of policy ideas. We might see what it is that the Australian people have long considered an impossibility, or a fallacy; a cooperative of people, a true grass roots party, centred on tangible core values, busy working towards the future of our nation.

Written by Inga Westerberg

Inga Westerberg is a member of the Tasmanian Greens & currently lives in Hobart.

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