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A true statesman shines at St Paul’s

He may be leaving Canberra, but Bob Brown has his sights set on the globe, writes Michael Koziol.

Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown (right) and his partner Paul Thomas smile during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, April 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of the ABC.
Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown (right) and his partner Paul Thomas smile during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, April 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of the ABC.

Senator Bob Brown’s endless optimism is perhaps one of the true mainstays of modern Australian politics. For a man who has served a life sentence in the public domain, fighting against persistent greed, corporatism, and homophobia, it is something of a wonder that his rose-tinted glasses remain so bright.

Senator Brown’s intimate talk at the St Paul’s Medical Dinner on Thursday last week was light on medicine, but it reminded us of his early years saving lives on the Hobart ambulance rounds. And he would not forget the formative lesson from that time tending to patients: “Take a history. Listen to what people have to say.” It has informed his politics ever since.

In his first major speech since announcing his retirement, the senator, who will leave office on June 15, shared the improbable story of how he unwittingly became the first person in the Commonwealth to legislate for the criminalisation of lesbianism. Amid the amending of Tasmania’s criminal code to become gender neutral, the only exemption proposed by the parliament was Section 122 – which outlawed sodomy. In a moment of exuberant genius, Brown moved that this section also be made gender neutral – to his mind, nullifying the act. But the amendment passed and horrifically, accidentally, lesbian sex became a crime.

Bob Brown then adopted the wonderful position of having to lobby against his own amendment in the Tasmanian upper house. Ultimately, it was never enacted in to law.

And so the fight has gone on – not angrily, not bitterly, not even temperamentally, but steadily and stoically, and not without victories. The long march against global warming, and what he sees as the undervaluing of our ecosystem, continues.

It is clear from some audience questions that Bob Brown hasn’t won the philosophical battle even among this generation. “There is an intrinsic value of the environment,” Brown responds to a student who questions it. “But we can’t quantify it, it’s like love, or beauty, or wildness.”

He is leaving politics to talk more about the big issues – the human community, globalism, and the need to save the planet for future generations. The big challenges in the next 30 years, he says, will be finding space for solitude in the world, protecting the Great Barrier Reef and systems like it, security and nuclear weapons, and ensuring the rights of children.

But above all the challenge will be learning to share. Senator Brown, perhaps more than any intellectual I’ve recently heard, appreciates the importance of this change. It’s about welcoming our fellow humans in China, India, and Africa in to the global middle-class, but in a sustainable way. It’s about “not considering ourselves superior because we’re wealthier”.

And welcoming them also in to the folds of democracy, which Senator Brown speaks of lovingly but not pathetically. “Democracies are about getting people to talk to each other and accept losing,” he says.

Bob Brown has lost countless times in his quest to change Australian politics, but the good fight will continue outside the parliament. That tireless optimism will remain undiminished. He quotes, in closing, the great Emma Goldman:

“I don’t want your revolution if I can’t dance.”