According to some, Bob Brown was some kind of evil genius who managed to fool a large section of the population through a reassuring demeanor to ignore his radical agenda of communism and de-industrialising Australia into a waste land via a carbon tax. To others he was seen as a living treasure, a man who achieved fantastic political success through superb communication skills that awakened the national electorate to the importance of environmental issues.
The truth is a bit different however – he got lucky.
Bob Brown’s success was largely a creation of circumstances created by others, which opened up a niche for his party. The fact that Christine Milne reflects values similar to those of Bob Brown suggests their hold on this niche is secure.
Lucky event 1 – Civil rights concerns from Tampa and the war on terrorism
Back in the late 1990s people forget that, for a period of time, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party had tremendous success nibbling away at the Liberal-National Party’s conservative base, just like the Greens have done with Labor’s base in the inner urban suburbs. John Howard quite skilfully moved to a hardline stance on refugees, which enabled him to see-off the One Nation threat without really sacrificing anything he really believed in. But in doing so he also exposed Labor’s own contradictions between its two voting bases: the aspirational working class; and the inner urban educated class (‘inner urbans’).
Leading into the 2001 election, Labor was running a successful but economically misguided campaign to wind-back the GST and generally slow the rate of micro-economic reform. This played well to the working class’ concern for cost of living and job security, and also the inner urbans’ concern for income inequality.
Then there were two tragic events that reversed this success with the electorate: planes crashing into the World Trade Centre; and refugees being rescued by the Tampa.
The inner urbans were concerned for preserving civil rights and caring for the least fortunate (refugees) which made them resentful of Howard’s terrorism laws and his hardline stance on refugees. But the aspirational working class welcomed the response and started shifting their allegiance to Howard.
Labor really had little choice but to follow Howard’s lead to avoid surrendering the mortgage belt seats essential to winning government. But this left Labor incredibly vulnerable on its inner urban flank.
Lucky event 2 – Democrats self-destruct over GST negotiations
The second fortuitous event was that the Democrats largely self-destructed due to internal disagreements about whether they should have negotiated with Howard over the passage of the GST (Goods and Services Tax). This left the electorate without a viable protest vote alternative to the major parties other than the Greens. Also Bob Brown’s hands were clean from the implementation of the GST because he was never given the opportunity to negotiate over the package.
Howard’s dragging of Labor to the right on refugees plus the Democrats self destruction, meant that the inner urban electorate fell into Bob Brown’s lap without him having to change a thing.
Lucky event 3 – Tony Abbott gains the Liberal Party leadership on a single absent vote
From 2004 onwards, the Greens had firmly established a monopoly on the niche to the left of Labor. This has left them well positioned to seize any opportunity opened by a shift of Labor towards conservatism. When Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal Party leadership by a single absentee vote to Tony Abbott in 2009 the stage was set. Abbott’s destruction of the consensus on pricing carbon emissions led the Labor Party to panic and abandon their commitment to an emissions trading scheme. It also led them to panic again over refugees with the ludicrous ‘Timor Solution’ thought bubble.
By these actions inner urbans flooded to the Greens in the 2010 election. This was driven in large part by a disgust at what they saw as an almost treacherous abandonment of principle by the Labor Party.
While some conservative commentators seem to think the Greens will be punished for their championing of the carbon tax, they misunderstand the party’s electoral appeal. Sure the Greens will become less successful in competing for lower house seats because they will lose Liberal Party preferences. But it’s the Senate where the Greens will achieve long-term influence and make their presence felt beyond this term of government.
The Greens, by forcing Labor to honour their original 2007 election principles, did exactly what their voting base wanted. The Greens are not so much elected to ‘keep all the bastards honest’, but rather just keep the Labor ‘bastards honest’.
Bob Brown is not a genius masterful politician. Rather he represents a product of principles that around 20 per cent of the electorate have a taste for. The extent of the voting public that goes to the Greens is a function of the competition they receive from Labor, as much as anything to do with Brown. His exit is highly unlikely to signal the end of the Greens.