Address at the Greens dinner on Friday 22nd June 2012 to thank Bob Brown on the occasion of his retirement from the Australian Senate
My fellow Greens,
A few years ago, Bob and I spoke at an event in Orange in New South Wales.
On the way back to Canberra, we detoured to drive through Trunkey Creek. There’s nothing flash about Trunkey Creek. It’s a modest settlement that hardly deserves even the name of village. There’s a pub – called the ‘Black Stump’ - an old and now disused general store, a cemetery, and a brick police station with an attached house built in 1879. Bob’s father was the Trunkey Creek policeman, and this is the house where Bob spent his early years. It has cells where, I have it on good authority, Bob’s father, perhaps training his son for bigger things to come, once incarcerated him.
We drove around the settlement, Bob sharing warm memories of what was a pretty normal rural upbringing.
Bob’s background is completely ordinary.
And yet, on that foundation Bob has, by the alchemy of clear-sighted decisions, and being prepared to swim against the tide, built an inspiring contribution to this Earth and to all of us here tonight.
In 1976 Bob, by then a GP in northern Tasmania, was walking down a street in Launceston when a forester named Paul Smith approached him. Paul invited Bob to join him in rafting down a remote river called the Franklin - a river which Bob had never heard of until that conversation. When Bob and Paul paddled down from the Collingwood bridge, disappearing from sight around a bend in the river, they were venturing into a largely unexplored area of Tasmania. On that journey, which opened magic places of remote wilderness to him, Bob named several of the features of the river. At Propsting Gorge he and Paul went into an HEC hut where they saw plans for a series of dams up the river. The rest, as they say, is history.
Galvanized by the imminent threat to this last great wild river, Bob overcame intense shyness to speak with spell-binding force at rallies all around Australia, including our own large rallies here in Melbourne.
In the Franklin blockade, Bob was arrested at the end of 1982. The offence, on conviction, carried a $100 fine, and yet Bob was jailed for weeks because he refused to sign the unreasonable and, as it was later held, unlawful bail conditions which were imposed.
Then, as new year 1983 came in, Norm Sanders resigned from the Tasmanian parliament to run for the senate, knowing that on a recount, Bob would be elected. Bob came out of prison to be declared the new member for Denison that day. Later that same year, the High Court, in one of its most important constitutional judgments, upheld the regulations of the Hawke government which made the Franklin Dam illegal, and the river flows free to the sea to this day.
I say – thanks to Bob, but Bob has always eschewed the role of hero over the Franklin campaign – although he inspired so many. He points to all those who were involved in this campaign. For Bob, his leadership has never been about self-aggrandizement, but always about community.
When Bob stood for election in the Tasmanian state parliament in 1982, the Robin Gray led Liberal Party held a rally in St David’s Park in Hobart. There they released hundreds of balloons adorned with the message ‘Brown is a Green queen’.
I have never seen anything other than magnanimity and equanimity from Bob in dealing with this kind of homophobic reaction to his sexuality. Coming out was an act of grace and courage which was done to help others who were coming to terms with their own sexuality. In the face of the kind of intolerance he faced, Bob never succumbed to it himself.
One of the striking features of Bob Brown’s contribution has been his courage. Bob has been beaten, shot at, had cars firebombed, had a bulldozer drive at him when he was under its scoop, and been frequently arrested - to say nothing of being repeatedly vilified.
He has also showed remarkable compassion. He has travelled to countries like Mexico and Colombia to negotiate the release of kidnapped Greens, and contributed $100,000 of his own money (taking out a bank loan to do so) to arrange freedom for Nigel Brennan, the Australian photojournalist kidnapped in Somalia.
In 2001, when the Howard government sent troops onto the Tampa to prevent, at gunpoint, asylum seekers approaching the courts to secure their rights, it was Bob Brown who spoke out against it immediately. It is worth recalling the political context. An election was due at any time, and Bob faced imminent electoral defeat. Both Labor and Liberal had announced they would preference against him. The Howard government’s action was very popular with many voters.
Bob’s reaction was not to hide, but to call a press conference and state his opposition to this capitulation to Hansonism. Indeed at first it was only Bob who took a stand. It took the Democrats 24 hours to condemn the Howard government. Kim Beazley remained resolutely irresolute – trying to make himself a small target right up to the time he lost the election.
Many pundits predicted that Bob’s reaction was electoral suicide, but it was Bob’s very willingness to put himself on the edge which saw the Green vote go up a gear at the election in November 2001. We jumped from 2% nationally to 5% nationally. Bob was able to achieve election in Tasmania without the preferences of Labor or Liberal. And under Bob’s leadership, how far we have come since then? A national vote in excess of 10% and the balance of power in both houses.
We have seen Bob speak out again and again – addressing the huge rally here in Melbourne on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and who can forget Bob standing up in Parliament to confront George W Bush about the treatment of Australians in Guantanamo?
Bob likes starting things. Not just the Wilderness Society – which formed at his home in Liffey - but also the Greens, which he built in Tasmania and then across Australia with numerous meetings, and in 1991 when he won the Goldman Environmental Prize (the Nobel Prize for Greenies), he used the prize money to found Bush Heritage Australia, which now manages 1 million hectares of Australian land for its biodiversity and employs over 70 staff, with an annual budget of $20 million. Last year Bob donated his beloved Liffey to Bush Heritage Australia.
Anyone who has spent time with Bob, or read his writings, knows that the fine detail of nature brings out the best and most lyrical in him. With my family I walked with him to Mt St Gwinear in the Baw Baws once. Bob was very steady and present to the bush around him – sometimes stopping to photograph tiny details, alert to all around him and taking in all it had to offer.
How do we thank you, Bob, for a lifetime of service?
I first met Bob in Hardware Lane 33 years ago. Bob’s been there all my adult life – a figure so often able to express what is right even while I’m still struggling to find it. A moral compass for our nation. A beacon for the planet.
Our small thanks tonight cannot augment the sparkling gifts you have given to the Earth and to us all in your career, Bob. But we offer it, and we are inspired by your example to serve the Earth and our fellow beings to make this world a better place.
Please charge your glasses, and let’s drink a toast to our Bob Brown.