The shock resignation of the Greens’ popular leader and founder Bob Brown has left many questioning the long-term prospects of the party he leaves behind. Despite the temptation of some to compare the Greens’ fate with that of the Australian Democrats, it is too soon to eulogise the environmental party and the Greens are better placed to manage this leadership transition than their senate predecessors.
There is no doubt that Brown is an irreplaceable figure within the Greens and the parliament. The party he created has grown from to strength to strength during his 16 years in the senate and the Greens are the only party in the country to have achieved swings in their favour at every federal election of the last decade. He is a revered and galvanising figure within the Greens – instrumental in moderating the internal differences around policy and emphasis that are inevitable in any political party.
Browns’ personal journey from activist to Senator and ability to provide stability and focus to his party made him an enormously effective and popular leader. While Christine Milne may not have Brown’s public profile, she does possess many similar qualities. Like Brown, Milne was at the forefront of environmental activism in the 1980s, spearheading the campaign to prevent the construction of a Pulp Mill in Wesley Vale in Tasmania. She also began her parliamentary career in state politics and her experience in managing the balance of power in the Tasmanian parliament after she assumed the leadership of the Greens after Brown in 1993, will serve her well in the times ahead. Her considerable experience and service to the green cause, make Milne a person held in high regard within her party. Like Brown she is someone of conviction who is well positioned to provide the Greens with the unity of purpose that was a hallmark of his stewardship.
While some commentary has dismissed Milne as a ‘hardliner’ it should not be forgotten that upon his election to the Senate and during much of his leadership, Brown was also derided by opponents as ‘extreme’ and ‘out of touch.’ This did not however prevent him from building the Greens’ constituency.
Those concerned about the Greens’ post-Brown future can draw some comfort from the story of the Australian Democrats. In 1986 the Democrats faced predictions of their demise when party founder Don Chipp retired from public life. Despite the immense popularity of Chipp, the party continued under the leadership of a further 9 leaders and achieved its best ever result under his successor, Janine Haines. While ultimately leadership instability may have been a factor in the Democrats’ decline, there is reason to assume the Greens’ leadership will remain more stable. The ability of party members to spill and elect the Democrats’ leadership and the disparity between the membership and the parliamentary party this exposed, did potentially have a destabilising affect. By contrast, the Green MPs are able to elect their own parliamentary leader and the transition from Brown to Milne was seamless – completed within a few hours.
It should also be remembered that leadership change was not always bad for the Democrats and this did provide opportunities to break into new constituencies (eg: Stott Despoja’s appeal to younger voters). Similarly, the Milne and Bandt leadership team presents the Greens with a unique opportunity; Milne is a figure of the Brown tradition, while Bandt is representative of the Greens’ growing inner city constituency. Milne’s focus on regional Australia could also pay electoral dividends and at the 2010 election the Greens won significant swings in some regional electorates. Further, as a Lower House MP, Bandt is uniquely positioned to continue the Greens’ assault on inner city Labor electorates, as well as escalate his own campaign in his seat of Melbourne, with the benefit of the additional resources and enhanced public profile that deputy leadership brings. For the first time, the party will head into a federal election with leadership in both houses.
The timing of Brown’s announcement also bodes well for Milne and her team. While many in the Greens would no doubt have hoped Brown would contest one more election, he leaves the party in good shape. Of 9 Senators, only 3 face re-election in 2013 (with Bandt also facing re-election in Melbourne). Even if support for the Greens does decline in the short-term, the party has a strong parliamentary buffer. The current political climate however still remains advantageous, with both major parties failing to inspire the electorate.
There is no doubt that the Greens face challenging times ahead, but with an election not due until 2013, there is plenty of time to deal with any teething issues. With the stability and unity of purpose that will be maintained under Milne’s leadership, there is no reason why Brown’s departure should bring this party to an end.
This piece was first published on On Line Opinion on the 19th of April 2012.