How Bob Brown taught Australians to talk about, and care for, the ‘wilderness’



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Libby Lester, University of Tasmania

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, looking at the way they changed the nature of debate, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. You can also read the rest of our pieces here.


To understand Bob Brown’s impact on Australian political debate, watch Tasmanian commercial television and stay on the couch during the ad breaks.

Here’s an advertisement for “wilderness tours”, another for small businesses on the “Tarkine coast”. Few of the audience, let alone the businesses paying for the ads, would know these terms came into common use because of the way Bob Brown does politics.

Anywhere known as “wilderness” was best avoided before the late 1970s when Brown, then leader of the campaign to save Tasmania’s Franklin River from damming, started deliberately including the term in almost every public statement he made about the threatened area. He understood the symbolic power of the term.

His political and media opponents quickly learned also. The Hobart Mercury – a strong supporter of the Hydro Electric Commission and its political masters – rarely let the word onto its pages. This was different from, for example, the Melbourne Age, which opposed the damming.

NO DAM headline on The Launceston Examiner in 1983.
The High Court decision to block the Franklin River dam was very significant and divisive.
Tasmanian Electoral Commission

The Tasmanian media’s approach changed shortly after the High Court decision to block the damming in July 1983, when the commercial potential of “wilderness” began to emerge. Even the Mercury was promoting a calendar of “wilderness” images by the end of 1983.

Beginning in the 1990s, Brown applied the same patient strategy to the campaign to protect the area between the Arthur and Pieman rivers in north-west Tasmania. The Tarkine, with its forest and mineral resources, might still not be fully protected – earlier this year there were more arrests of members of the Bob Brown Foundation. But it is probably a lot closer than it would be if Brown had stuck to calling it the Arthur-Pieman.

Originally from regional New South Wales, Brown moved to Tasmania during the ultimately failed Lake Pedder campaign of the early 1970s. On the advice of Richard Jones, president of what is now recognised as the world’s first Green party, the United Tasmania Group, the openly gay young GP in ill-fitting suits started standing for Tasmanian parliament in 1972. After a decade of trying, he won the lower house seat of Denison (now renamed Clark; Brown might have come up with something less predictable) in 1983.

The shift from protest camps to the formal political arena proved challenging to Brown’s way of doing politics. As a young journalist covering Tasmanian parliament in the mid-1980s, I watched as the ever-polite-if-firm Brown inadvertently almost outlawed lesbianism as he tried to make Tasmania’s appalling anti-homosexuality laws symbolically nonsensical.

Ironically, the notoriously conservative members of the Legislative Council rejected his amendment, saving Tasmania’s lesbians from becoming criminals. While the mistake was memorable, more so was Brown’s willingness to acknowledge what he still describes as the worst moment of his political career.

However, some members of the Australian Greens, the party Brown was instrumental in forming in 1992, might suggest his worst political moment was publicly supporting the partial sale of Telstra in return for environmental gains before the party had debated the move internally.

Brown’s occasional failure to respect his party’s way of coming to decisions is forgivable. After all, consensus politics only really works when a strong leader guides the way, and Brown – as is increasingly obvious for the Greens – was exactly that.

Brown was elected to the Senate in 1996, after ten years in the lower house of Tasmania’s state parliament. He was re-elected to the Senate twice, in 2001 and again in 2007 when he won the highest personal vote of any Tasmanian senator.

The 2010 election resulted in nine Greens in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. Negotiations with Brown and the Greens led to Julia Gillard and the ALP forming government in return for an ever-elusive carbon plan.

As a senator, Brown continued his play with the symbolic that he had learned so well as a protester. He made international headlines in 2003, not only for interjecting during US President George W. Bush’s speech to the Australian parliament, but for shaking the president’s hand afterwards. Bush responded to the heckling by saying: “I love free speech.”

Woodchip giant Gunns expressed exactly the opposite sentiment the following year when it launched a A$6.3 million law suit against Brown and 19 other activists just before Christmas to silence them over its pulp mill plans. Gunns should have known Brown was always going to out-survive it. The company collapsed in 2012, taking with it one of the worst reputations in Australian corporate history.

Brown stepped down as leader of the Australian Greens and retired from the Senate in 2012. After forming the Bob Brown Foundation, he has sparked more recent debate over whether the Adani convoy in 2019 was in fact his worst political moment, turning Queensland voters and thus the most recent federal election to the LNP.

For some critics, the convoy led by Brown was a misguided attempt to redeploy old tactics and relive past glories. Given the protest involved a convoy of fossil-fuelled vehicles travelling to oppose fossil fuel extraction, it does seem on the surface, at least, that Brown’s ability to harness the symbolic deserted him in this case.

However, a deeper play with the symbolic was under way, one I suspect Brown knows will be recognised with time, if it hasn’t been already. Brown is not afraid of being seen as an outsider – perhaps he has had no choice in a country where blokiness is a common character trait of political insiders. Nor has he ever pandered to the small-town politics that puts local rights over what he considers the greater good.

The Adani convoy was meant to be seen exactly as it was – an invasion by outsiders. If it contributed to the election loss for the ALP, so be it. Brown is playing a long game.

Brown may have affected the way politics is debated in Australia, but he has not yet changed that politics.

As Brown’s career has highlighted, ours is a politics where economic growth and environmental protection are still largely in conflict: jobs versus conservation, social needs versus ecological futures, left versus right. These tensions remain as evident in the political party Brown formed as in the responses of his political opponents, in media commentary and in voter choices.

Australia’s inability to act on carbon emissions exemplifies both the enduring nature of this politics and how long a game Brown has always been willing to play. In Brown’s maiden speech in the Senate in 1996, he said:

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.

Thirteen years later, when the Greens led by Brown voted against Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – and hence still carry the blame for Kevin Rudd’s failure to respond to “the greatest moral challenge of our time” – Brown’s argument for his party’s opposition to the scheme was “that it locked in failure” by “providing polluters billions of dollars and setting targets way too low”.

Like Gunns, the major parties can’t say they weren’t warned. Another thing Brown had said in his first speech in the Senate, quoting British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, was: “the future will either be green or not at all”.

Brown is indeed playing a long game, and we can only guess what name he will give politics if he wins.The Conversation

Libby Lester, Director, Institute for Social Change, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Forest Wind and Australia’s renewables revolution: how big clean energy projects risk leaving local communities behind



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Tom Morton, University of Technology Sydney; James Goodman, University of Technology Sydney; Katja Müller, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Riikka Heikkinen, University of Technology Sydney

On top of announcing three Renewable Energy Zones this week the Queensland Parliament paved the way for an exclusive deal to build one of the biggest onshore wind farms in the Southern Hemisphere.

With up to 226 wind turbines in state-owned pine plantations, the 1,200 megawatt Forest Wind project could power one in four Queensland homes and help the state meet its target of 50% renewable-generated electricity by 2030.

The turbines will be a minimum of three kilometres from the nearest town. Because they’re sited in an exotic pine plantation, impacts on native flora, fauna, and habitats will be minimised. At first sight, Forest Wind looks like a model project. But look a little closer, and Forest Wind embodies many of the contradictions at the heart of Australia’s renewable energy revolution.

The current pace of Australia’s energy transition is breathtaking. But big projects like Forest Wind need to take local communities with them, and build a social licence for the energy transition from the ground up.

A community ‘kept in the dark’

As our research in the German state of Brandenburg shows, building towers 160 metres high – that’s higher than the Sydney Harbour Bridge – anywhere near settlements tends to lead to community opposition and lengthy delays.

Affected communities are much more likely to accept a massive wind farm on their doorstep if they feel they’ve been listened to by project developers, and can see clear benefits.

The three-kilometre “exclusion zone” for Forest Wind is twice the 1,500 metre minimum distance from settlements required under Queensland law. And project developers argue its location amid dense pine trees will provide “a natural buffer between Forest Wind and local residences”.

Wind turbines with red tips
Wind turbines near Rosenthal Brandenburg. Our research in Germany found building wind farms near towns causes opposition and delays.
Lothar Michael Peter, Author provided

But local residents told a parliamentary committee in June they’d been kept in the dark about the project, claiming “it was kept secret from 2016 until the public announcement in December 2019”. They also expressed concern about its visual impact and proximity to bird migration corridors.

The developers and the state government seem to have followed the well-known and widely criticised “DAD” approach: Decide, Announce, Defend.

“DAD” may be common in current planning processes, but the people of the nearby Wide Bay community may feel that, so far, there’s not enough in it for them.

The Conversation contacted Forest Wind Holdings for a response to this article. A spokesperson said the project will provide the local community a long and ongoing opportunity to continually provide input.

Forest Wind is pleased to have received feedback from hundreds of people so far including at information days, online forums, letters and over the phone. […] Since the project’s announcement, COVID-19 has certainly impacted community consultation activities, as local halls have been closed and a planned wind farm tour has had to be cancelled.

Now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing, Forest Wind is establishing a Community Reference Group […] Forest Wind intends to work closely through the Community Reference Group to continue to understand the needs and interests of the local community and work in a collaborative and multi-stakeholder approach to address community concerns and develop initiatives that leverage the Project and deliver community benefits.

Few community benefits

The Forest Wind website lists no concrete community benefits, no benefit sharing programs, concrete training or education initiatives, and hardly any community engagement besides standard consultation meetings and newsletters.

Elsewhere it’s becoming common for government-led renewable energy auctions to stipulate socio-economic objectives other than just capacity or price. In Victoria, one preference was to use labour and components from the state. In the ACT, one outcome was wider benefit sharing in the form of community co-investment.




Read more:
Climate explained: are we doomed if we don’t manage to curb emissions by 2030?


The Queensland government has fast-tracked Forest Wind through its Exclusive Transactions Framework, which gives preferential treatment to large-scale infrastructure projects. In other words, it’s picked a winner.

Forest Wind Holdings did not have to go through a competitive tender or auction process. Given the sheer size of the project, the state government had plenty of scope to negotiate better-than-average benefits for Wide Bay and the state.

Then there’s a further issue: jobs. According to the project website, 50% of the jobs in the construction phase (around 200) and 90% during operations (about 50) can be filled by people in the Wide Bay region.

A Forest Wind spokesperson said there are “vast benefits” for the local people in Wide Bay, including job opportunities in the concrete and construction sector.

These are all real jobs, for which on-the-job training and on-the-job management and mentoring can benefit workers to skill-up in working on Forest Wind, on future wind farms, and increase the opportunity to apply skills and qualifications in other areas of the economy.

Forest Wind was originated by local Queenslanders and the development team are based in this local area of Queensland. Already there are real local jobs, with more local jobs to come as the project develops – this is a positive.

But local communities need to see more lasting job creation from big renewable projects, not just “the circus coming to town”.

Consulting with native title holders

One clearly innovative aspect of Forest Wind is the requirement for an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which provides negotiation rights for titleholders and compensation. Under legislation passed this week, the developer must negotiate a land use agreement where native title exists, and “the project cannot proceed without the free and informed consent of these individuals and communities”.

Part of Forest Wind is located on native title lands held by the Butchulla People, whose native title is well-established. Another part is on the land of the Kabi Kabi people, whose native title claim is pending. Forest Wind states it is consulting with native title holders and looks forward to partnerships with them.




Read more:
Why most Aboriginal people have little say over clean energy projects planned for their land


In contrast, last year the Queensland government extinguished native title over land in the Galilee Basin to make way for the Adani coal mine.

And the Adani mine is now only expected to offer only 100 to 800 ongoing jobs.

So let’s be clear: we should applaud Queensland’s decision to throw its weight behind the energy transition.

A recent report estimates that, with the right stimulus measures now, by 2030 there could be 13,000 Queenslanders working long-term in the renewable sector, and tens of thousands more short term jobs in construction.

Some 75% of those jobs would be in regional Queensland. The challenge is to ensure enough of them go to regions like Wide Bay.

And at a national level, Australia should look to Germany as a model.

Community energy projects

Renewables now employ 304,000 people in Germany. That compares with about 60,000 in the coal industry.

Germany built its energy transition over 30 years. The German experience shows how fostering citizen involvement and ownership will strengthen long-term social acceptance for renewable energy.

This means encouraging community energy, energy cooperatives, community owned retailers or community-based Virtual Power Plants. Community energy projects are estimated to have higher employment impacts and can better prioritise local contractors than corporate-led projects.

A greater focus on energy democracy would build a stronger foundation for the energy transition Australia has to have.




Read more:
Really Australia, it’s not that hard: 10 reasons why renewable energy is the future


The Conversation


Tom Morton, Associate Professor, Journalism, Stream Leader, Climate Justice Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney; James Goodman, Professor in Political Sociology, University of Technology Sydney; Katja Müller, Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Riikka Heikkinen, PhD Candidate, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.