Senator Bob Brown’s Maiden Speech to the Senate

This is the text of Senator Bob Brown’s first speech to the Senate.

Senator Brown was elected as a Greens representative from Tasmania at the March 1996 Federal Election.

Senator Bob BrownSenator BROWN (5.15 p.m.) — It is an enormous privilege and honour for me to be standing here in this Senate as the first Australian Greens senator to join my colleague, Dee Margetts from the Western Australian Greens, and to follow in the footsteps of Christabel Chamarette and Jo Vallentine, who have pioneered the entry of Green politics into this, the national parliament. It is an extraordinary period in human history which doubles the privilege of being able to represent the people of Australia and, indeed, to be a voice helping guide this parliament towards a more effective Australia in a world which is facing great social and environmental problems.

I need do no more than quote the great contemporary British thinker and philosopher, Jonathon Porritt, who, using ‘green’ in the widest sense of the word, said:

The future will either be green or not at all.

This truth lies at the heart of humankind’s most pressing challenge: to learn to live in harmony with the Earth on a genuinely sustainable basis.

That causes me to ask: what is that relationship with the Earth or, indeed, with the universe?

Here we are, some six billion people, on this finite, fragile living planet. We do not understand as a generally accepted wisdom why. We do not know where we have come from and, indeed, we cannot clearly chart the future ahead, but this much we do know: we are an amazing organism which is able to think and reflect on the universe and its awesome and infinite wonder. We are, indeed, the universe; a means by which the universe is able to reflect upon itself and to alter itself. We do not know whether this has ever happened before or will ever happen again but, if we stand back and look objectively at what we are, it is a precious and awesome thing which deserves to be cradled very carefully.

And yet, by that experimentation and that ability to change this planet, we have moved now into an awesomely challenging time when it is in our hands either to proceed towards the millennium which our forebears have only dreamed about, or to proceed down the road of materialism which currently has this world by the throat, pressing on the accelerator as we go towards what any person who is thinking clearly can see is an inevitable unsustainability with the planet, with our fellow species and with ourselves.

Some millions of years ago Lucy, the small-brained Australopithecus, was one of about 125,000 of the congregation of what are generally accepted as our earliest humanoid ancestors on this planet. By some 2,000 years ago the population had grown to 125 million. By the 1880s that population—including Rome becoming the first city aggregate of one billion people on this planet—had moved through to number one billion people. Within the space of little more than a century that number has grown to six billion and, if we take the most hopeful indications, the projections are that it will proceed to somewhere between eight and 14 billion people crushed together on a planet which is undergoing—as far as this human community is concerned—immense and accelerating change.

If looked at objectively again, it is a frightening prospect because we have to agree—before we come to grips with the moves that are necessary for us to collectively rein in our excesses and get ourselves back to sustainability—that we are not in control. We only have to look at that population pressure and what it means to this planet to know that. We only have to look at the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots within the human community to recognise that we are failing to achieve the moves to sustainability which we owe the future generations.

It is a matter of concern to me that on this planet there are now some hundreds of billionaires at the same time as there are 1.3 billion people living at a level of less than $1 income per day. These people are marginalised and living in marginalised areas on the planet with increasing frustration as they recognise through modern communications that those billionaires exist and that we in the rich, wealthy and lucky northern countries of the world have, compared with them, gross consumption and profligacy in the way in which we use this planet’s finite resources.

We only have to recognise that there are already on this planet some 25 million environmental refugees compared with 22 million refugees through other causes to know that it is the environment that is, if you like, in control, rather than we human beings. Anybody who reads natural history will know that, if you flout the environment’s carrying capacity, you ultimately are headed yourself towards extinction as a species.

That number of 25 million environmental refugees, by the way, is predicted to double by the year 2010, and if you look at the 1.3 billion people living in marginalised circumstances on this planet, their fortunes seem very bleak indeed. If, for example, the temperature rises, as predicted, by half a degree centigrade by the year 2025 when India will have 1.3 billion people, we can expect that the wheat crop, for one, will have been reduced by 10 per cent on current levels. There is no hope of accommodating the 300 million extra marginalised people that will be on the Indian subcontinent at that time.

We have to face this reality: either we, as a nation, are going to be outgoing and giving to the rest of the planet; either we are going to find the means for sustainable relationships for people living in much harder conditions than ours, and export it; or we are going to be the recipients of at least part of the enormous mass migrations which are going to occur for many reasons, but not least the environmental catastrophes which will overtake humanity in the coming century.

One has only to look again at the reality that if we do not rein in the greenhouse gas phenomenon one billion people on this planet will be displaced if the oceans rise by a metre at the end of the next century. This for a planet on which the wealthy ones who fly between here and London put, on average per passenger, five tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Only today we heard in this parliament that other great British thinker Dr Norman Myers informing us that, in terms of the value of the carbon sink in this age of enormous inherent problems, if we do not bring our warming gases under control, each hectare of forest being logged on this planet is of a value between $1,000 and $4,500 for its ability to contain carbon alone—something never written into the equation, so far as I am aware, in the debate over the value of Australia’s forests, one which has been raging in this country.

To summarise what I have just been saying, maybe we ought to have taken more notice, we ought to have heard more in our press about the 1992 petition to the people of this planet from some 1,575 scientists, including 100 Nobel prize laureates. They warned that if we do not change this material charge, this consumption of the planet, within 40 years life for many species, perhaps including our own, is likely to be unsustainable, that we are on a collision course with the planetary environment itself.

Had that warning that the planet is going to collapse under the weight of human activities been a warning of a stock exchange collapse in this day and age of economic fundamentalism, it would have grabbed the front pages of the media around the planet. As it was, it missed most Australian newspapers. It made page 9 of the Hobart Mercury, as I remember, and one of the mainland metropolitan dailies. Less space was given to that extraordinarily telling warning from a global scientific think-tank than to the `Peanuts’ cartoon of the same day around this country. It is very sobering indeed to think that, after some millions of years of divergence from our feathered friends in the bird world as far as evolution is concerned, we are studying so hard to emulate the ostrich as we move to the end of this century.

With the rapid change of human circumstances, the industrial revolution following the agricultural revolution, then the technological and post-technological age of information which we are now in, we see a changing format in the political divide around the world. First, if we look at the industrial revolution, it was the Whigs and Tories. That debate was found wanting and was replaced for most of this century by a discussion between those who favoured the socialist theory and those who favoured the capitalist theory of the centralised market.

We are now learning that, indeed, it is not just we human beings alone who determine what is going to be human well-being but in fact we must take the planet into our considerations as well. So we have this new and emerging dichotomy which has put new faces into this parliament, which will put many more into it in the future and which must challenge the existing economic rationalism of major party politics right around the planet.

This can perhaps be summed up by the extraordinary warning of social chaos in Robert Kaplan’s article in the Atlantic Monthly, the United States’ news magazine and comment magazine, of February 1994. Quoting other sources, he says:

. . . for too long we’ve been prisoners of `social-social’ theory, which assumes that there are only social causes for social and political changes, rather than natural causes, too.

This social-social mentality emerged with the Industrial Revolution, which separates us from nature. But nature is coming back with a vengeance, tied to population growth. It will have incredible security implications.

Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim — which of course includes Australia — and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.

It is a debate that is going to rage, I think, as we go into the next century. It is a debate about taking back into consideration the idea that we are not people apart, that we were cradled by the wild planet, that our bodies and minds are a creation of the wild planet, not the concrete and plastic conurbations in which more and more of the human citizenry of this planet live in artificial circumstances as we move to the end of this century.

So, the rise of the Greens. It began with the world’s first Greens party, the United Tasmania Group, which grew out of the battle to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania and which had its first get together, an overflow meeting in the town hall of Hobart, in March 1972. At that period through spontaneous combustion, if you like—because this human mentality around the planet tends to reach a similar conclusion, given enough time, through the sheer dint of commonsense—other Greens parties were formed in other nations and by the early 1980s there were Greens parties in most parts of Europe.

I had the pleasure just last year of having a cup of tea with the mayor of Dublin, the first Green mayor of Dublin, John Gormley, although he is not the first mayor of a European city—that honour goes to Rome. There are four elected mayors of Brazilian cities. In Europe the Greens share the balance of power and have a number of ministries, including, I understand, the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Finland. There are numerous Greens in other Scandinavian parliaments. Some analysts say that the Greens may well win the balance of power in Germany—one of the world’s biggest economic entities—in next year’s elections. They do hold the balance of power in three of the landa, the states, in Germany. There are 17 Greens parties in Africa.

Just last month I had the privilege of meeting with the Taiwanese Greens—the newest Greens party in our neck of the woods. They are extraordinary people whose first act last year was to sail a boat out into the impact zone of the provocative and belligerent Chinese rocket test which was meant to scare the Taiwanese into voting a certain way in their presidential elections. If ever you see people in a place that needs the Greens it is Taiwan where 22 million people in a burgeoning economy are squeezed into an island less than half the size of Tasmania, where 14 dams are on the slate, where the fourth nuclear power station has just been voted down in the parliament, where gangsters run the rubbish dispersal system and thousands of citizens are out in the suburbs trying to stop landfills being dug up in their particular area under threat of arrest and imprisonment.

In Australia, besides our colleagues in Western Australia as I have just mentioned, there are 10 Greens in Australian parliaments—one in the upper house of Western Australia, one in the upper house of New South Wales and two Greens in the ACT Legislative Assembly. Four Greens in the Tasmanian parliament, led by the indomitable Christine Milne, hold the balance of power with a Liberal government in place which, by the way, in recent months, because of that Greens presence, has kept some very important promises, including sheltering education from budget cuts, increasing the number of teachers by 135 and giving a greater allocation to the free enterprise small business incubators, the local enterprise initiatives, in the state—an initiative of the Greens in 1989, which has created nearly 1,000 jobs and which deserves the tiny amount of public funding which sees those jobs created in the state which has the country’s worst unemployment situation.

I came into the Greens because of Lake Pedder. I also went to Tasmania to look for the Tasmanian tiger. I was a young doctor and I had the opportunity of three months locum in Launceston in 1972. Sad to say, last Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger. The last one was brought out of the Florentine Valley, which is now almost flattened from end to end by logging. It was one of six brought out of the Florentine Valley in the 1930s. There has been, since 1936, no tangible evidence—no droppings, no hairs, no photographs, no footprints—that will confirm the existence of the Tasmanian tiger much as we might keep our fingers crossed for its return.

I was then fortunate enough to float down the Franklin River and be involved with that remarkable organisation—a great Australian organisation—the Wilderness Society, and many other conservation organisations, including the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, in the battle for the Franklin. Let me say this: one of the world’s most remarkable, beautiful, inspiring places was saved there because millions of Australians cared.

Beyond that, Strahan—the centre of that battle—is the only west coast town in Tasmania which has a consistent growth pattern in terms of jobs and economic investment predicated on the protection of that area and its world heritage nomination. Moreover, we failed to get a dam which would have added $1 billion to the Tasmanian debt and would have seen our power prices even higher as a disincentive to industry and certainly would have worsened the 10 to 11 per cent of unemployment that Tasmania experiences at the moment.

From there we have moved on to the forest campaigns which rage at the moment. Let me just say this: I will tomorrow have the pleasure of supporting the legislation to be introduced by Meg Lees—and I will jointly host—on woodchipping, something that we Australians have yet to come to grips with. How can we hold our heads high on this planet when the forests are disappearing at the greatest rate in history and with them occurs the extinction of some 50 of our fellow species a day, when we in this country are not even containing the loss of our forests but expanding it—an expansion which currently includes the licensing of the clear-felling, fire bombing and then poisoning of ancient rainforests and tall eucalypts in Tasmania with their amazing myriad of life forms, which have never experienced the ugly impact, this cancerous impact, on forests which comes from the charge of blinkered materialism that is out of control and at the very least giving no credence to the cry of future generations that they too will want such wonder and variety as part of their lifetime.

Some 20 years ago I, as that young doctor in Launceston, made it public that I am homosexual. Now 20 years down the line much has changed but I, naturally, have not. Nor has the Tasmanian Legislative Council. This antediluvian chamber, which I guess is the most powerful upper house in the Western world, has no women at all within its chamber. This brings great shame on my home state.

Most recently, the Legislative Council in debates tried to turn back some of the important components of national gun law legislation, with a blinkered thinking. I can sum this up by the contribution of one of the honourable members there who, just weeks after the Port Arthur tragedy, said, `Why do we need this legislation?’

During my time in the Tasmanian House of Assembly, where I spent 10 years, I was able to be part of many Green innovations. One of those was the ‘death with dignity’ legislation. It was blocked in the Legislative Council in 1991 without debate—one person made a contribution—and was unanimously turned down, despite an 80 per cent support from the Tasmanian people, according to a Mercury opinion poll. It is somewhat deja vu to find myself in this parliament where this chamber may soon have legislation to overturn the Northern Territory’s pioneering legislation on euthanasia.

It is legislation which I wholeheartedly support as humane, as one giving people the right to dignity in death as they approach an unavoidable end to what has very often been a long and loving life. The alternative prospect is great indignity, which they do not want. It is a matter of right, a person’s option, that is at the core of debate on that legislation. I would hope that during the life of this Senate somebody will introduce legislation to this parliament to emulate that Northern Territory legislation.

As it has already been prepared, I will also be introducing legislation to overturn section 329A of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which allows a perfectly valid vote—but lands you in gaol, as it did Albert Langer, if you dare to advocate it. I will also, on behalf of the Australian Greens, push for proportional representation in our house of government. Most European parliaments have it. Under recent referenda, the ACT took it on board. So did the New Zealand people.

It simply means this: on the day after an election, everybody wakes up to find that somebody she or he voted for is in the parliament to represent them. Compare that with the current, stultified, single-member, Westminster option that we have in place here in Australia: on the morning after the election, half the electorate wakes up to find that their vote was in vain, that somebody they not only did not support but also resent is the only person from their electorate in the parliament to represent them.

We have a long way to go with democracy. Fundamental to the obvious improvements we can make is proportional representation. I would favour the Hare-Clarke system being exported from Tasmania, across the Bass Strait—a gift to the people of Australia to give them better representation.

I would also hope that we will be able to rectify section 44 of the constitution through legislation for a referendum, as the section prevents hundreds of thousands of Australians from a basic democratic right; that is, to stand for parliament. I refer to public servants who, unless they resign their jobs, appear to be threatened by section 44 and will lose their place in the parliament if they dare to stand.

I would also, on behalf of the Greens, be moving for the Indigenous people of this country, the original occupiers and owners, to be recognised in our constitution. Indeed, I will be moving to support the concept of a bill of rights and responsibilities for Australia, for all Australians.

Coming out of a High Court ruling of only last week, it seems that there is an urgent need for freedom of information legislation to be extended from the public arena to the private arena. What an absurdity—I say this as a doctor in the past—that people do not have ready access to their own medical files held by their own doctors. What an absurdity that we cannot go to a corporation or a private instrumentality, a shop, if you like—or a private school, for that matter—and find out what files relate to ourselves as individual citizens and what is in those files. That is something that could very easily be rectified.

Madam President, I would also be moving for a restoration of the levels of foreign aid from Australia. Indeed, I would be moving for their increase—to complement my opening remarks to this chamber—so that Australia can lift its head a little higher and accept a little better its responsibility to the rest of this very challenged world.

I have only to look at the estimation by Dr Norman Myers—that the recent cuts in the Australian aid budget will result in 500,000 Third World couples denied family planning advice, 900,000 unwanted births and 60,000 abortions—to see that this country has gone in the wrong direction. It needs to turn around and go back. It certainly needs to do better than the equivalent of 0.3 of one per cent of gross national product being allocated to the people elsewhere in this world who deserve nothing more or less than a fair go.

In foreign outreach, I support the peoples of Indonesia aspiring to democracy. We have been far too wimpish and quiet, at government levels certainly, as far as that is concerned. I support the people in Burma and Tibet. I welcome the commitment of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to meeting the Dalai Lama, one remarkable human being, when he comes to our country later this month. I will quote from the Dalai Lama, who has said:

The exploration of outer space takes place at the same time as the Earth’s own oceans, seas, and fresh water areas grow increasingly polluted. Many of the Earth’s habitats, animals, plants, insects, and even micro-organisms that we know as rare may not be known at all by future generations. We have the capability, and the responsibility. We must act before it is too late.

I say this about his holiness: he has said on one occasion that were he able to vote he might vote for an environmental candidate; were he able to stand, we might welcome him very much to stand as an environmental candidate.

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