BOB Brown has a vision of the Australian Greens supplanting Labor as one of Australia's mainstream political parties in the decades ahead.
As the Greens leader celebrates 25 years as a parliamentarian and holding the balance of power in both houses of parliament for the first time, with a record 10 Greens MPs, he envisages a much broader political future than the passage of the carbon and mining taxes in the months ahead. "I believe the Greens as a party are in a similar position to what the Labor Party was 100 years ago," Senator Brown told The Weekend Australian in an interview.
"We represent a widespread view of the community and our support is geographically widespread. I think that within 50 years we will supplant one of the major parties in Australia." Senator Brown sees this coming week as the basis for a long-term future for the Greens as a mainstream political party and leaving a broader legacy than just environmental achievements. Although the Greens leader believes the growth of his party's support is a result of taking the votes of both Coalition and ALP supporters who are concerned about the environment, he sees more growth in the years ahead at Labor's expense.
Senator Brown also sees a much wider role for the Greens beyond being a "minor party" just aiming for the balance of power in the Senate, signalling intent to contest House of Representative seats across Australia. Labor MPs are divided about what their party's attitude should be towards the Greens, whom they rely on for preferences to win seats and government. Some urge co-operation but others warn that the Greens will drain Labor's support and should be fought. "I think our future is not just as a balance-of-power party in the Senate, but as a party in the House of Representatives," Senator Brown said.
At the last election, the Greens won their first lower house seat at a general election when Adam Bandt captured the seat of Melbourne, previously held by former Labor finance minister Lindsay Tanner. Four new Greens senators elected at last August's poll will take their seats in the Senate for the first time on Monday.
The minority Gillard Labor government depends on a formal agreement with Senator Brown on votes of confidence and budget bills, but the Greens reserve the right to vote against individual bills. At the last election, Labor's primary vote was 38 per cent, the Coalition's was 43.6 per cent and the Greens' was 11.8 per cent. According to the latest Newspoll survey, the ALP's primary vote is at a record low 30 per cent, the Coalition's is 46 per cent and the Greens' is 11 per cent.
Senator Brown argues that the Greens' control of the Senate from Monday is overblown, that the party will have to make compromises on key legislation, including the carbon tax, and recognises that minor parties' power has to be exercised in proportion to their representation in the electorate. "We can't do anything in the Senate without either the government or the Coalition," Senator Brown said. He also suggested that, given the Greens could not block or pass legislation without the support of the government or opposition, he was surprised the Coalition had not attempted to act "more strategically" in the Senate with the Greens.
Senator Brown acknowledges the point visiting New Zealand Prime Minister John Key made about minority government not being such an issue in his country because the minor parties recognised they should not overplay their position. "We have a mandate, indeed we have a clearer mandate than many, but I am conscious of providing a proportionate response to our overall representation," he said. On the carbon tax bill, Senator Brown conceded: "There will have to be compromises from us."
He sees that the compromise will affect the perception of his party and there will be a reaction from his supporters. But he says: "We have a mandate for a carbon price and we will act on that." On a mining tax Senator Brown, who wants amendments to raise more revenue but has said he will pass it, said that after seeing the draft legislation it was a concern that there appeared to be less revenue than estimated.
While having a long-term view of the Greens' future and his role as a founding leader, Senator Brown admitted that, in the short term, the Greens would have some of the problems normally associated with larger parties.