How Tasmania’s anti-protest laws drove Bob Brown back to frontline activism
This isn’t what Bob Brown had planned. At 78, the man who launched the Australian Greens and whose decades of activism remain a lodestar for much of the country’s conservation movement had imagined a shifting focus in the final act of his life.
He would spend more time writing, at home south of Hobart with longtime partner, Paul Thomas, and less on the campaign frontline. Retirement was not on the agenda but a decade after leaving politics and creating the activist group the Bob Brown Foundation he had started the transition, resigning from the organisation’s board and taking a more backseat role as its patron.
But plans change.
Last year the Tasmanian government passed anti-protest legislation that was aimed at the foundation and its blockades to stop native forest logging across the state and drilling by the mining company MMG in the takayna/Tarkine region. The laws substantially increased penalties for individuals and added heavy fines for the “body corporates” they worked for. MPs were explicit about which body corporate they had in mind.
It prompted a reappraisal at the foundation, which employs about 20 people from its Hobart headquarters. Some directors stepped aside, while Brown returned as chair of a stripped-down board with members who could bear the risk of potentially costly legal action. Speaking during a tour to promote the documentary The Giants, he describes this as a period of “taking stock and going into self-protection mode”.
“It is on the record that this legislation is to take out the Bob Brown Foundation,” he says.
“I felt the need to be honest and direct with both the existing board members and potential board members, because I’ve been through a number of legal or threatened legal actions. Particularly in the Gunns 20 era [when 20 activists were sued by a now defunct timber company for a combined $7.8m], I saw what it did to people. People were distraught, laying awake at night wondering if their house was going to go, their furniture was going to go, their kids’ education and so on.”
The result, Brown says, was him returning to being “more hands-on in the running of what’s quite a big organisation now”. The decision was made before he was arrested and charged in November for refusing to leave a logging coupe that scientists had identified as breeding habitat for the critically endangered swift parrot.
“I had been wanting to be away and writing about this, and warning about it, and inveigling people not to take it lying down, but I thought I had to come back more into … not scribbling from the sideline, but being in the centre of it,” he says.
“It is very important for me to be able to endorse the very thing that got me to establish the foundation, which was the ability to take peaceful direct action where nothing else has succeeded. I’ve never wanted to get other people to do what I think they should be doing. I think I’ve always wanted to take part in that myself.”
The extent to which this is an A-grade understatement is on show in The Giants, a biopic by Laurence Billiet and Rachael Antony. Unconventional in structure and often emotionally charged, it builds a picture of Brown’s remarkable activist life and the development of green politics in Australia. It includes some familiar tales – notably, the movement-defining campaign to save Tasmania’s Franklin River from being dammed – but also unearths footage and audio interviews with Brown’s family, lifelong friends and fellow travellers.
The biographic elements run alongside a visually inventive portrait of the lives of giant trees, some estimated to be 4,000 years old, and the interconnected forest community around them. The film is ultimately a call to action revolving around Brown’s central message: “Don’t get depressed, get active.”
In Q&A sessions after screenings, Brown is often asked how he keeps going after five decades of campaigning in which environmental damage has continued to escalate. How is he not a washed-out pessimist? He says he went through “10 depressed years” during the cold war, a period in which he was also at war with himself over his sexuality. He emerged from that time with a commitment to optimism that persisted through the darker moments of his political life, which at times brought him to tears once he got home.
“Optimism is something we should not just allow to the captains of industry,” he says. “I see my job is to say, ‘Go for it’ – to encourage young people. Don’t get too anxious. Look after yourself. Find good companions. Finish your degree or your certificate. Travel. Go to parties to make sure you’re enjoying life. And if the going gets too tough, go shopping.
“Don’t wear a hairshirt. Assume we have time to turn this around – because if you can’t make that assumption, you might as well go home and read a book. We need to license young people to not drop everything and feel overwrought but to take their time and do what they can. Because the risk the other way is burning out everybody, and we have to look after each other. That’s a really important thing.”
Brown sees reason for optimism in a Newspoll that found more support for the Greens than the Coalition among 18- to 34-year-olds. He also sees it in direct action protests against Australia’s continuing fossil fuels expansion. Over the course of an hour, he twice raises the Rising Tide protesters who blocked a coal train headed for the port of Newcastle, describing them as “beautiful Australian heroes”. He quotes the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who said the real radicals today were not activists but the people who open new coalmines during a climate crisis.
“If you’re looking at the law of nature, they are absolute criminals,” Brown says. “If you rob a bank, you go to jail. But if you rob coming generations, you get a massive subsidy from the co-opted captains of democracy – the current crop of ministers and prime ministers and premiers.”
Brown made headlines when he returned his life membership of the Australian Conservation Foundation in anger over the group calling for changes to the safeguard mechanism climate policy to be improved and passed through parliament.
It remains a divisive issue among climate and environment campaigners, who are not uniform in their politics, and have different views about how to bring about transformative change. The ACF’s intervention came at a delicate point in negotiations between the Albanese government and the Greens before a deal was reached and a strengthened bill passed.
“I would have had people protesting outside Parliament House with placards saying, ‘No new coalmines, no more gas fracking,’” Brown says. “I think any environmental organisation that was wanting to help at that stage would have been doing that, not saying to the Greens, ‘Please take this because we’re frightened we’ll get nothing at all.’”
He says he won’t be accepting ACF’s invitation to renew his life membership. “I’ve got no hostility to ACF. I love them, I think they’re a great and important organisation. But it is not their job to endorse second best in legislating for the environment. They’ve got to go for the best every time.”
Brown’s primary focus is now on the fallout from the anti-protest laws and the future of the Tarkine. He sees the Tasmanian legislation as part of a wider push by governments acting on behalf of extractive industries that don’t like peaceful protests disrupting their business. Similar laws have been introduced or strengthened in the UK, and by Labor in Victoria and the Liberals in New South Wales.
The Tasmanian resources minister at the time the laws passed, Guy Barnett, said his government had acted after “listening to the needs of business”. Brown argues governments are “actually usurping democracy” by prioritising corporate demands.
“We have seen these moves because they know they can’t win that argument in the public arena, so they try to take out the environment movement,” he says. “The world is in a spiral dive, as far as this singular biosphere that we all depend upon to live. It’s natural for those profiting out of that to want to be able to do so without having their consciences tested, let alone their finances tested. That’s what we’re up against.”
The federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, is expected to soon make a decision on whether MMG can carry out drilling work for a tailings waste dam planned in rainforest near Rosebury on Tasmania’s west coast. Brown says anti-protest laws will not deter the foundation if the development is given the greenlight. “We’re not going to simply concede and leave the field,” he says. “We’re going to defend that rainforest.
“It’s a bit cheeky but I’ve been inviting audiences at the end of each showing. I’ve been saying to people, ‘If you want to, for your next holiday, come down to the Tarkine, it’s a most arresting place.’
“I’ve got my tent packed and I’m ready to go.”