A profile of Senator Milne
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As I stroll across the Hobart waterfront towards Greens Senator Christine Milne's dockside office, I can't help but reflect on changes in the area. I grew up just a street away at a time when Hobart was a thriving port that sustained 1300 wharfies instead of the handful of casuals employed today. You could walk alongside the handsome sandstone warehouses of Salamanca Place and smell the hops, or the sickly sweet aroma given off by vats of boiling fruit in the jam factory that was IXL Jones & Co.
Today the Hobart waterfront, like that of Baltimore, Liverpool and Glasgow, has become gentrified. Jones & Co. has been converted into the University of Tasmania's art school, and the grain warehouses are galleries and boutiques. This playground waterfront is an image of postmodern Western economies: the decline of mass manufacturing, the rise of service industries.
Milne is delayed, which gives me a moment to enjoy the view from her office. It's a big glassed-in semicircle that looks down the Derwent River towards the Great Southern Ocean, where ice is melting at a more accelerated rate than was predicted even five years ago. In the days of the early colony, whales were so common on the Derwent that they constituted a shipping hazard. Now they are a rare sight indeed and it's easier to imagine a rogue iceberg floating into view, even if in reality it would have melted long before it reached the Derwent estuary. The Cold War politics and picket-line dramas that dominated the waterfront of my childhood have been succeeded by the fear of climate change. If nothing is done over the next two decades, then a rise in sea levels might well see these harbour waters lapping at the doors of the coffee shops - and at the very entrance to Parliament House.
Milne enters, is apologetic, and tells me she has just returned from lunch at Hobart's exclusive Athenaeum Club with Catholic Archbishop Adrian Doyle and a group of international visitors from the Catholic aid agency Caritas. I ask her what they talked about, and she tells me that NGOs in third-world countries are looking to promote economic development in forms that are economically sustainable. It is one of her areas of expertise.
I'm not surprised to hear about lunch with the bishop. I know Milne to be a quietly effective networker across a broad spectrum of community groups, a Green who resists any tendency to political ghettoisation. Whereas it's hard to imagine some Greens belonging to any other party, Milne could easily have become a Labor politician and, had things gone otherwise, a state premier. Instead, she is Bob Brown's heir apparent as the Greens' national leader.
Like Brown, Christine Milne is a country kid whose passion for the land is rooted in her childhood. A fifth-generation Tasmanian and daughter of small-scale dairy farmers in the idyllic Wesley Vale area, she grew up with draught horses, learned how to milk cows and went rabbiting with her sister. The charge that Greens are urban latte-drinking armchair progressives irks her. "It confounds me," she says, "when people say, ‘What have the Greens got to do with rural Australia?' Primary industry is all about sustainability issues. Biosecurity, quarantine, trade: all of those things are part of the Greens' agenda."
At the age of ten Milne was exiled from paradise, sent off with her older sister to board at a spartan convent school in Hobart. I was a day-girl at the same school and I know just how hard the conditions were then for the boarders, hard both physically and mentally. A year after Milne arrived, her sister had a breakdown and returned home, but Milne stayed. To survive in a boarding school, she says, you have to learn how to read an institution, how to negotiate with in-groups and out-groups. ("You see that bullies eventually get their comeuppance and negotiated outcomes have to work for everyone or the system slides into greater and greater stress.") She went on to university to do an honours degree in Australian history and although not involved in student politics, in her late twenties she was moved to join the Franklin River blockade. There she was arrested and sent to jail for three days. As with many of her peers, it was a formative experience. "I thought, If that's the worst they can do to you in Tasmania, then I'm up for it. From that time on there was no looking back for me as an activist."
I remind her of Bob Brown's remark that people who went to boarding schools cope better with jail, and she laughs. "It certainly toughens you up. In a way it also prepares you for parliament. All that time away from home, all those arcane rituals."
When in the late '80s the Canadian company Noranda and North Broken Hill Ltd proposed the building of a pulp mill in her hometown of Wesley Vale, one of the nation's prime agricultural regions, Milne became the face of the opposition. I remember how intrigued I was the first time I saw her on the evening news. She wore a pale-blue flower-print suit and looked every inch the young rural matron; in no way did she resemble the tribes of dreadlocked ferals that the media loved to portray as the green vanguard. It was this mainstream image that helped her mobilise a demonstration in which local farmers drove their tractors alongside Wilderness Society activists, a conjunction that would have been unthinkable a year before. But the flower-print look did not deceive Graham Richardson, then the environment minister in the Hawke government, who Milne converted to her anti-mill cause. In his memoir, Whatever it Takes, Richardson describes the young activist as "one tough lady".
On the strength of her successful campaign to stop the pulp mill, in 1989 Milne stood for state parliament and she and the north-west-coast activist Di Hollister became the first women Greens elected to an Australian parliament. It was an election that left five Greens holding the balance of power in Tasmania's lower house and led to the historic Labor-Green Accord, in which Bob Brown describes Milne as having played a key negotiating role. It remains the only time that the Australian Greens have been in a formal arrangement with a state government, although it is not regarded as having been a coalition since the Greens held no cabinet posts. The outcome was a doubling of Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and the introduction of freedom-of-information legislation, but the accord broke down after 16 months over the state ALP's adoption of the federal government's Forests and Forest Industry Strategy. Labor people of that era still speak venomously of Brown and Milne as "rigid" and "hardline", and when I returned to Hobart to live for a time in the mid '90s I was informed by one Labor frontbencher that the Greens, not the Liberals, were "the real enemy".
When Bob Brown quit the Tasmanian lower house to run for federal politics (he was elected to the Senate in 1996), Milne took over as Greens leader in 1993. During the years 1996-98 the Greens again held the balance of power in a Liberal minority government, a partnership that produced a period of unprecedented social and economic reform: new gun laws, gay law reform, an apology to the Stolen Generation on the floor of parliament and a motion passed in support of Australia becoming a republic. All of this was negotiated by Milne. "She was," says Tony McCall, a political scientist at the University of Tasmania, "the dominant intellect in the Tasmanian Parliament while she was there."
Milne is impatient with the conventional wisdom in Australia that minority governments are something akin to an unnatural disaster. Many European governments, she points out, are minority governments. "The thing about balance-of-power politics is that it allows space for politicians to change their mind, to support things that they know are right and want to achieve but that their own constituency won't allow." She cites her Tasmanian campaign for gay law reform. "We'd made some concessions on a difficult budget and so I asked [Premier Tony] Rundle for some concessions on gay law reform. By this time I had been abused by two Liberal frontbenchers and [former federal member, the ‘Mouth from the South'] Michael Hodgman had described me on ABC Radio as the mother of teenage sodomy."
Rundle's response was to tell her that she had to find a way for people like Hodgman to save face, and if she could do that he might be willing to negotiate. Milne organised a legal summit with various experts and the attorney-general, and created a process that looked as if all parties had made a contribution and resolved their differences.
Milne has a way of making it all sound eminently reasonable, as if there were not a great deal of nerve involved. At a time when she was lobbying for gay law reform she was living with her then husband and her two sons in a small town that became the base of the island's anti-homosexual rallies. Over the years, bullet holes have appeared in her posters and death threats have become commonplace.
Minority government proved intolerable to the major parties in Tasmania and they resorted to an act of unprecedented political vandalism. The ALP combined with the Liberals to change the Tasmanian Constitution and the much-admired Hare-Clark electoral system - refined over 50 years - as a means of purging the Greens from representative government. In the short term it worked and in 1998 Milne lost her seat. Against the odds, the Greens bounced back in the 2001 state election but by then Milne had gone on to work as a staffer for Bob Brown and to become active on the international stage, serving on a number of committees (she is currently a United Nations Global 500 Laureate and a vice-president of the World Conservation Union, IUCN). It was always expected that she would move into the federal sphere and in 2004 she was elected to the Senate, despite a preference deal between the state ALP and Family First that was designed to cut her out.
Both before and after her election to the Senate, Milne campaigned as a formidable opponent of the right-wing Christian lobby. Even more so than Brown she was at the fore of the Greens' campaign to expose the secret electoral machinations of the Exclusive Brethren, and she refused to answer the 2007 pre-election survey sent to candidates by the Australian Christian Lobby, saying she would consider filling it out when the ACL revealed who funded it. She clearly has no time for Family First, believing they were elected on a bogus agenda and are already out of touch with the shifting public mood on environmental issues. "Steve Fielding has voted for every expansion of uranium mining, and export of uranium overseas, to the point where we say he stands for nuclear families," she says, adding that he has voted against "almost all" initiatives on climate change.
There is a war going on, Milne says, over who defines the Christian agenda in Australia, with too much focus on single issues like RU486 and not enough on social justice. And there are many fundamentalists, she reminds me, who have no fear of environmental catastrophe because they welcome it as a prelude to the Second Coming. On the other hand, for some years she has worked with the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Bishops' Advisory Committee on the environment. "I suspect I'm one of the few women to have stood up and given a talk to the Conference of Australian Catholic Bishops." Was Cardinal Pell there? I ask. She smiles. "Cardinal Pell was there, and he was not persuaded."
Few senators from minority parties have come to national politics with the depth of Milne's political experience. Not long after she entered the Senate in 2005, Mike Seccombe wrote an admiring account of her tactical nous in the Sydney Morning Herald. The occasion was the Howard government's only defeat on the floor of the Senate during its final term. In a piece on how Labor, the Greens, the Democrats and Barnaby Joyce combined to defeat a provision of the proposed new Trade Practices Bill that they believed would be inimical to small business, Seccombe set out the moves that led to the government being ambushed, with Milne playing a major role behind the scenes: "nine years juggling the balance of power in the Tasmanian Parliament taught her a thing or three about how to use parliamentary process." The outcome was a pole-axed Eric Abetz and an irate Bill Heffernan who famously monstered Joyce in the Senate after the vote.
When I raise this with Milne, she shrugs it off and is more interested in talking up her co-operation with Heffernan. She points to her membership, along with WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, of the Senate's Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee, and she is proud of her negotiations with Heffernan to set up an inquiry into Australia's future oil supplies and alternative fuels. "People would have thought it unthinkable that I could persuade the Howard government to agree to that Senate inquiry, but they agreed, because I persuaded Bill that this was something absolutely critical and he stood up to Robert Hill, and we got it through." Subsequent efforts by Milne and Siewert resulted in the Howard government agreeing to a Senate inquiry into climate change and agriculture in rural Australia.
I put it to her that the Greens' engagement with down-home issues of industry, with everything from making cheese to breeding sheep, is not cutting through to the wider public. Despite her best efforts, the Greens continue to occupy a default position as tree-huggers and sprout-eaters, and are still identified - some would say, overly identified - with radical social policy on drugs and gay law reform. I confess to her that this is why she interests me, because she clearly represents another kind of green constituency. She has never been on the organised Left, nor has she ever seemed a stereotypical Wilderness Society person. "Well, yes," she says, laughing. "I'm more your CWA. I still like a good passionfruit sponge."
When I ask Milne if we have at last reached the point where strong female political leaders can be taken for granted, she expresses caution. Her personal style is quite conservative, and she thinks that one of the big dangers for any woman politician is to fall into what she calls "the celebrity trap". I sense that the lessons of Cheryl Kernot's spontaneous combustion loom large in her mind, as well as in the minds of her female contemporaries. We see it in the formidable public demeanours of Julia Gillard, Penny Wong and Julie Bishop: no femme-fatale evening gowns in the Women's Weekly, no tears and dummy spits. So disciplined are these feminist avatars of the new millennium that they can often sound as if they are on automatic pilot: someone has wound them up in the morning to stay on message and all active incoming calls will be diverted. Former NSW Senator Kerry Nettle was a swashbuckling young radical of the ‘keep your rosaries off my ovaries' variety, but Kerry Nettle has gone.
In the 2007 federal election it was widely predicted that the Greens would hold the balance of power in the Senate. The final count, however, has given the Coalition 37 senators and Labor 32, with five Greens, one independent - South Australia's Nick Xenophon - and one Family First, Victoria's Steve Fielding. Labor will still need the Greens to support its legislation, but they alone are not enough to guarantee its passage. It is not the result the Greens had hoped for, even if the magic figure of five now gives them official party status in the Senate, with greater funding and staff resources. I ask Milne about the Greens' vote: was she disappointed, especially given the emerging consensus across the political spectrum on global warming as an urgent policy issue? She professes to be happy with the "deepening" of the party's vote - a quarter of a million more Australians voted Green than in the 2004 election. But yes, the Greens would have liked seven senators, and it was a close-run thing in Victoria and the ACT, where they almost pulled it off.
"Everywhere we campaigned, we picked up on this great desperation to get rid of Howard, and a feeling that only a vote for Labor would achieve this. ‘Yes, I usually vote Green,' people would say, ‘but this time I'm going to vote Labor because I can't risk Rudd not being elected.' I didn't get a sense that these voters were captured by the Rudd vision, just desperate and anxious." She agrees when I suggest that many voters were prepared to give Rudd the benefit of the doubt. They saw him as determined not to be wedged by Howard and believed he would do more once elected to oppose the Tamar Valley pulp mill.
None of this, she believes will hurt the Greens' long-term trajectory. The post-Howard era, she says, is just the beginning of a new broad consensus. But the issues are so complex and so confronting that much has to be thought through in detail. "It might prove too difficult for Labor to bite the bullet on coal and uranium and old-growth logging," she says, and points to their "pitiful" policy on a rebate scheme to subsidise solar cells on houses. "Because Howard has been so bad, Labor hasn't had to refine its policies, which are still in an area of motherhood statements and apple-pie generalities. I think they are ready to back the resources boom as a lazy option. I'm not seeing any evidence of sophistication around industry policy." On the other hand, she is optimistic about the fact that Rudd is a multilateralist: "he clearly sees Australia's disengagement with the rest of the world as having been a very bad move."
There is no doubt that the Tamar Valley pulp mill will be an early test for the government. It's one thing for governments to concede on social policy - gun law, gay marriage - and to sacrifice extreme right-wing groups to compromise (as George Bush, for all his official piety, has so consistently done in the US). The depth and breadth of business influence, however, makes the forestry issue more intractable. Nevertheless, Milne declares herself happy with Penny Wong's appointment as the minister with responsibility for addressing climate change. "I went on the record before the election saying climate change would need a minister with clout," she says, and although dubious about Wong's connections with the CFMEU thinks her better placed than Garrett to bring industry to the table. "Garrett lacks factional support within the party and is looking increasingly like a cosmetic attempt at greenwash." Nevertheless, she agrees that despite his relegation he will still have a tough set of issues to deal with: the dredging of Port Philip Bay, the pulp mill and uranium mining. And that's just the small stuff.
In the Weekend Australian of 28 April 2007, Matthew Warren wrote, "The debate over climate change is ... moving so fast and getting so big that it is sucking the oxygen out of the Greens' political space." Milne responds: "The Greens are an international movement and they are here to stay." At Bali, she met up with her counterparts in the European Parliament and canvassed new initiatives like that of the Irish government to link taxation reform with environmental reform - so that, for example, car registration and road tax are assessed in relation to the efficiency of the fuel used in motor vehicles (Irish Green Party ministers hold two cabinet portfolios, Environment and Heritage, and Energy and Natural Resources). It's an example, she says, of how the Greens worldwide can work to set standards and "keep the debates honest". She might almost have said "keep the bastards honest", but Christine Milne is a well-brought-up convent girl and it's not her style.
Amanda Lohrey is a writer. Her books include Reading Madame Bovary, The Philosopher’s Doll, The Reading Group, Camille’s Bread and A Short History of Richard Kline.