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Bob Brown on graduation day

Brown is just as principled, but far from as radical as he is seen to be

Bob Brown, the former leader of the Australian Greens, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney. Art: Aidan Magro. Bob Brown, the former leader of the Australian Greens, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney. Art: Aidan Magro.

Few political leaders have the talent or sense of whimsy to play a music video of their own creation at a graduation ceremony. Bob Brown has both. Receiving an honorary doctorate at the University of Sydney earlier this semester, Brown played “Earth Song” [1]. The lyrics are not hugely original, but they are earnest: “Wonderful planet. Life’s revelation. Our sunlight garden.”

In contrast with the platitudes of University of Sydney staff who have spoken at too many graduations, Brown’s musical sincerity is striking.

Striking also was Brown’s decision to criticise the University’s record on fossil fuels the night before receiving his doctorate. He said he would consider it “appalling” if USyd had not divested from fossil fuels. “Universities, you would think, would have the intellectual honesty and integrity to put the planet’s future ahead of the … profit rate that they can get out of highly publicly subsidised fossil fuel companies”, he told me.

In 2014, the University said it was “taking a leadership position on carbon reduction” but only reduced the emissions intensity of its investment portfolio by a fifth. Compared to the University’s rhetoric, it was a tokenistic gesture.

Perhaps the only other politician who, like Brown, might be expected to perform at a graduation ceremony is Peter Garrett, now back with Midnight Oil after serving as environment minister in the Rudd and Gillard cabinets.

As head of the Australian Conservation Foundation until 2004, Garrett had charted a similar political course to Brown. As environment minister, Garrett gained political power, but also faced huge pressure to compromise on conservation. In 2007, when the federal Labor government announced its support for a pulp mill in northern Tasmania, Brown labelled his friend a sell-out. It is not clear if their relationship has recovered, though Garrett has returned to the progressive music that first made him a household name.

Brown is not always whimsical.

Throughout his career, Brown has been known as an indefatigable optimist, but that too is a simplification. Certainly, it must have taken titanic belief to co-found the Wilderness Society and then the Australian Greens, but twice in our conversation, Brown betrays a sense of deep weariness with Australian voters. “I’m a little tired of hearing how bad politicians are. People have choices, and they vote for them. As the great American economist J.K. Galbraith said, the Congress almost exactly reflects the people who vote for it.”

Despite the recent discrepancy between the popular vote and the presidency in the United States, it is easy to understand where Brown’s sentiment comes from. At 72, and without any of the corporate, media, or union roles that former Labor and Liberal leaders often receive, Brown is still a very active political player. When we speak, he is travelling between Canberra and the Blue Mountains. The day after, he will be in Sydney. His promise, on retiring, to take over more of the housework from his partner Paul Thomas, seems to still be pending.

In his media appearances, Brown does not shy from controversy. Earlier this year, he forcefully rebuked NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, describing her as a “team wrecker” for prioritising the interests of a group of hard left activists in the NSW branch over the more moderate aims of the national party. Brown might be cast as a radical by his political opponents, but he is distinctly more pragmatic than he is given credit for.

In part, that manifests in Brown’s belief in the power of the arts.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s campaigns to save the Franklin river, photographer Peter Dombrovskis’ image of Rock Island Bend became a pivotal symbol of the wilderness that the Tasmanian state Liberal government planned to flood by damming the river.

It featured in full-page ads in major metropolitan newspapers on the eve of the 1983 election that brought the anti-dam Hawke government to power.

Two days before receiving his honorary doctorate, Brown had been in Canberra opening an exhibition of Dombrovskis’ works.

Yet in the decades since then, the environmental campaigns for everything from the Tarkine forest in Tasmania to the Great Barrier Reef have failed to  generate a similarly iconic image.

I put to Brown that the pace of the internet has made it impossible to encapsulate a movement in one photo. He disagrees.

“There were many images and films of the Franklin, including a lot from Peter … History tends to precipitate all that out and say ‘there was one picture that did it’, same as it tends to say ‘Bob Brown saved the Franklin river’ when I didn’t. It was thousands of people … so one has to be wary of that. But we all have an iconic image of a blue planet taken from outer space.”

Perhaps the problem is one of singularity, then. A river can be dammed, or not, but the ongoing damage to the Reef is gradual, and therefore far harder to capture.

Brown is used to these continual battles. Last year he was arrested for protesting in the Lapoinya forest in North West Tasmania, an area that had been been preserved under the 2011 Tasmanian Forestry Agreement (the state Liberal government reneged on the deal in 2014). In footage of disputes from the ongoing Lapoinya campaign back to the struggle to save the Franklin River campaign in the early 1980s, Brown always comes across as austere, but respectable. He is clean shaven, dressed in collared shirts and referred to as a medical doctor, then an MP and finally a federal senator, depending on the decade. His appearance and measured manner make those facing him, whether loggers or police, seem unreasonable by contrast.

It is a critical strategy when protesters like Brown face legislation in NSW that penalises peaceful protesting with up to seven years in jail, and four years in Tasmania.

When Brown entered the Senate in 1996, his debut was overshadowed by another new arrival: Pauline Hanson. By the time Brown retired in 2012, he appeared to have decisively outwitted and outlasted Hanson, whose party had crumbled under the weight of lawsuits and preference deals between the major parties. The Greens had stepped closer to becoming a party of government by supporting Gillard’s minority government in 2010.

Now, Hanson is back.

In one sense, Hanson’s return shows that a set percentage of Australia’s population are rusted on to the far ideological poles of the right and left.

Yet, far more striking than the similar position that Brown and Hanson hold on opposite sides of Australia’s politics is their irreconcilable approach to politics.

For a man who has been used to sitting outside the mainstream, the validation of an honorary degree from Sydney was clearly a pleasure, but on stage to receive it, Brown looked uncomfortable. He was dressed in the pompous glossy red gown with gold detailing and matching hat that the University requires honorary graduands to wear. Hanson would have crowed at this symbol of acceptance by establishment Australia. Brown often says that he has enjoyed his life in politics, but were the wilderness not under threat, one can imagine that he would have been equally happy had he never come to Canberra. 

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[1] It’s on YouTube.