Bob Brown resigns

April 13, 2012

Senator Bob Brown today resigned from the leadership of the Australian Greens and as a member of the Senate.

It’s fair to say that this was the single most bloodless leadership transition in Australia’s recent political history. There were no poisonous comments from party MPs, no middle of the night ultimatums, no sense that a leader was being removed to allow a party to renege on earlier voting agreements.

And – most startlingly – there were no leaks to the media.

None. Not a one.

There was a party room meeting this morning, where Brown announced his decision to resign. His deputy, Christine Milne, was elected unanimously to succeed him. And then the party simply trooped out and handed the media the news.

And everyone was utterly blind-sided. For once, ‘Breaking News’ actually meant something. We weren’t subjected to days (if not weeks) of speculation, backgrounding, commentary and rumour increasingly being presented as fact. Instead, we had an initial announcement, followed by the extremely pleasant sight of watching pundits scramble to analyse the situation on the hop.

It was … civilised. About as far removed as it’s possible to get from the public spectacle of that terrible Rudd/Gillard stoush earlier this year. And a far cry from the eleventh-hour manoeuvres that stripped Malcolm Turnbull of the Coalition leadership in order to prevent Rudd’s emissions trading scheme from passing the House.

It was a smooth transition, even to the point of the Greens deciding that they would hold another party meeting today to elect their new deputy leader – allowing members to consider their positions, discuss nominations and make up their minds rather than force them to make an immediate vote.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in characteristic style, gave his opinion on Brown’s time in Parliament. You couldn’t exactly call it a tribute:

‘The deal with the Greens has been an enormous problem for Julia Gillard. I think all too often Bob Brown has looked like the real Prime Minister of this country. I think that Bob Brown has been a very strong force in Australian politics in recent years … I would say too strong a force in Australian politics.’ (my italics)

Pure Abbott. Even a backhanded compliment comparing Brown to Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp didn’t soften his statement, especially as Abbott immediately followed that up with a confident prediction that ‘turbulent times’ lay ahead for the Greens.

I suppose it was too much to expect anything more gracious, or even decent, from someone who used the death of someone like Margaret Whitlam to score a cheap political point. But really

We’re not talking about a leader who was turfed out by his own party. We’re not seeing a political career end in disgrace and controversy. Brown’s resignation is a dignified exit from politics at a point when the Greens are at their strongest, accomplished with integrity. In the words of Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim, Brown ‘carried his bat’.

Compare Abbott’s words to those of Prime Minister Julia Gillard: she thanked Brown for ‘his remarkable contribution to state & federal politics over 3 decades’, and noted his contributions on the Franklin Dam, carbon pricing and how he ‘bravely used his own experience’ to work towards gay rights.

She went on to describe him as ‘a figure of integrity with a deep love for this country and its environment’, his career ‘driven by passion’.

No nasty little digs, no pronouncements of doom, and – most importantly – no mean-spirited opportunism.

Abbott probably commands more of the media cycle than any other politician. Sky and ABC News24 don’t cut away from his media conferences the way they did with Brown’s. His words are repeated, and repeated, (and repeated ad nauseam) and his slogans are slavishly adopted. He has plenty of opportunities to say what he thinks about the Greens, and Brown – and he takes them. It’s not like he needs to seize every moment to make a point.

It’s almost as though he’s incapable of that sort of gracious acknowledgement. Or perhaps he feels that if he gives even an inch, it would be a sign of weakness. Either way, it’s very, very poor behaviour.

Regardless of personal politics, no one can deny that Brown gave his heart and soul to bringing about reform on social and environmental issues. He took a one-issue state party and, with the help of like-minded people, built it into a true third party in Australian politics. The Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, and have a representative in the House.

And that’s without looking at his personal contributions to social justice, both within and outside politics. The ABC has published a great – but short – summary of his work as a trailblazer, and I highly recommend it.

He deserves to at least have all of that acknowledged by our political leaders, not least the so-called ‘alternative Prime Minister’. It’s called statesmanship, and it’s something in which Abbott is sadly lacking.

It’s to be hoped, at least, that his sour, petty points-scoring won’t eclipse the tributes that are rightly due Senator Bob Brown and his accomplishments. He is a rare force in politics, and – whatever side of the fence you fall down on – he remains a man of conviction.

Senator Brown, for your contributions to social justice, raising Australia’s awareness of environmental concerns, helping secure protection for fragile ecosystems and bringing about carbon pricing initiatives … this writer thanks you. Your career exemplifies the service to the people that should be at the heart of all political representation, and you will be missed.

Euthanasia and territory rights

September 20, 2010

Senator Bob Brown doesn’t waste any time. Before the new Parliament even gets to the doors, he’s signalled that he intends to introduce a private members’ bill aimed squarely at one of the most divisive issues in Australian social politics – euthanasia.

In 1996 the Northern Territory passed legislation decriminalising voluntary euthanasia – that is, a situation in which someone takes their own life in order to avoid protracted terminal suffering. Nine months later, the Howard government introduced and passed a bill to override those laws, exploiting the fact that, under Australia’s peculiar system, none of its Territories enjoy the same level of autonomy as the states. Although both the NT and the Australian Capital Territory have Self-Government legislation, in reality a Federal government can change or deny the provisions of those Acts.

Brown considers this an unconscionable interference, and wants to take steps to ensure that the NT can make its own laws in respect of end-of-life issues. Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled that she would allow a conscience vote on the matter.

Conscience votes are serious stuff. For most bills, the party cabinets decide how their members as a whole will vote, and members must be bound by that – the infamous ‘party line’. (The notable exception was the Australian Democrats – all sitting members participated in deliberations to determine how they would vote.) Should someone vote against the declared stance, they are said to ‘cross the floor’; literally, they leave their seat and move to the other side of the chamber during vote counting. If a conscience vote is declared, however, no direction is given, freeing members to vote according to their individual beliefs. The exception to this is if a party has already declared a position on the issue at hand – for example, ALP members are not free to vote their consciences on abortion-related legislation, due to the party’s declared support for reproductive choice.

Historically, conscience votes tend to concern highly controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, same-sex relationships, family law, war crimes, and certain areas of parliamentary procedure. Debate often gets tangled up with issues of religion and bio-ethics. Unlike most legislation, the outcome of a conscience vote is almost impossible to predict.

This is a huge risk for Gillard. Critics are already spinning her announcement as ‘proof’ that the Labor minority government is ‘held hostage’ by the Greens. If Brown’s bill passes, those voices may well be joined by those who believe euthanasia is morally and legally wrong.

Brown’s bill, in itself, does not call for legislation of euthanasia. It’s targeted at federal legislation. Should the bill pass, the NT would be free to re-introduce the issue in its own Parliament – but it would not be compelled to do so.

There’s a wider issue at work here, though. More generally, Brown is zeroing in on the federal government’s power to run roughshod over the territories’ right to self-government. In doing so, he puts the Labor government in an uncomfortable position. Issues of same-sex civil unions have already caused a good of deal of wrangling between the Australian Capital Territory and the federal government, with territory legislation repeatedly overturned or blocked, and the Legislative Assembly subjected to what can only be described as federal intimidation. The so-called ‘Northern Territory Intervention’, in which territory laws relating to indigenous peoples were overwritten by federal legislation, is another point of contention.

There are plenty of complex legal issues at work here. Technically, the federal government does have the right to these kinds of actions, although the justifications used often skate right up to the edge of legal trickery. Additionally, there are moral considerations. Should the federal government be able to repeal a law passed by a territory government simply because it doesn’t like it? Doesn’t this simply disenfranchise the citizens of that territory, a majority of whom voted for their direct representatives?

And in the case of the Northern Territory, are there really any good reasons for it to remain a second-class citizen? Why not grant states’ rights? The ACT is in a different situation – after all, it was specifically created to be a national capital, beholden to no particular state – but no such justification exists for the Northern Territory.

The issue of territory sovereignty, linked to the fraught question of legal voluntary euthanasia via this proposed bill, creates a potential minefield for Parliamentarians. Allowing a conscience vote puts increased pressure on members. There are two distinct areas of concern here, and there’s no guarantee that a member who supports territory rights would also be in favour of voluntary euthanasia. Or vice-versa.

Perhaps this is why Tony Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, are doing the media rounds right now attacking Brown’s bill. They’re not criticising the idea of euthanasia – in fact, one could say they are carefully not doing so. Instead, their strategy aims to paint Brown as politically naive, and out of touch with the ‘real’ concerns of Australian people. Abbott made several references over the last two days to ‘bread and butter’ economic issues, which he says are far more important than repealing the ban on the NT’s legislation. This is a curious tactic to employ, given how emotionally charged the whole question of euthanasia becomes at the drop of a hat. It’s as though the Coalition want to keep this as far from their Shadow Cabinet as possible.

Kevin Andrews, the original sponsor of the bill overturning the NT’s laws, appears to be designated as the person who’ll fight this bill on its merits. People ‘don’t want’ euthanasia legislation, he claims. ‘Every attempt’ to introduce it at state level has failed. Of course, here he’s being disingenuous. Strictly speaking, he’s not saying anything that isn’t true – he’s just not mentioning that a territory did pass the legislation and was prevented from implementing it.

What no one in the Coalition wants to do, it appears, is tackle the question of territory rights. By attempting to restrict the issue entirely to euthanasia, and further undermine its importance by implying that is frivolous, the Coalition seems to be hoping that they can avoid the thornier question. If they can’t, they’re damned either way. They’ll be forced to either defend or repudiate the Howard government’s interference. If they defend it, they look like autocrats – and they’re dragged into the general euthanasia question. If they repudiate it, the euthanasia question again becomes relevant, and in addition they leave themselves open to attack on every instance of intervention.

Brown’s certainly right in saying that territory rights are at stake here. In choosing the test case of the euthanasia laws, however, the Greens may have undermined themselves. If either issue dominates, it’s very possible that the bill will fail – not on its merits, but simply because the two issues have eroded rather than bolstered support for each other.

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