Federal Politics

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Pragmatic Milne to usher in new era

IN A carefully handwritten statement addressed to the ''Ladies and Gentlemen of the press'', Christine Milne launched her first tilt at elected office 23 years ago. The history teacher at Devonport High School had been a Franklin River blockader, then cut her public-leadership teeth on a small heritage battle to save neglected pioneer huts at Cradle Mountain in northern Tasmania.

Out of that experience, she moved on to form CROPS - Concerned Residents Opposing Pulp-mill Siting - a quaintly named but tenaciously effective coalition opposed to the planned Wesley Vale pulp mill. That battle all but won, on April 18, 1989, she took the logical next step and announced she would stand for election to the Tasmanian Parliament.

In her press statement the 35-year-old outlined her personal story to date, and touched on a series of parish pump issues in the coming state election.

The statement had an environmental flavour, but did not mention the word ''Green''. The core belief she underlined then in a draughty church hall in Launceston, and still there yesterday when she became Australian Greens leader, was about leading a consensus.

''I believe one of the most significant contributions I made was to bring diverse groups of people together, to work together towards a shared goal,'' Milne said then.

In Canberra yesterday when she took the leadership baton, Milne lamented the lost opportunities in the current balance of power caused by an antagonistic Coalition. ''We could have got a lot more done because there are many issues in which we could all work in a collaborative way,'' she said.


Belief in shared achievement is one thing but to some of her opponents, Milne showed a singular intransigence, leaving political losers in her wake. The long-time Tasmanian political analyst, Associate Professor Richard Herr, recalled her first struggle in a balance of power with the state Labor government of Michael Field. It was over school closures. Milne brought in legislation against the closures, forcing the resignation of deputy premier and education minister Peter Patmore.

Though the job was done by Milne, leaving a lasting enmity in Patmore for the Greens, Herr sees the case more as an example of rigidity enforced by her leader, Bob Brown. ''I would say that what was more important was her role in helping to frame a budget to deal with state debt driven up by [Field's Liberal predecessor] Robin Gray,'' Herr says. ''The Greens and Christine Milne managed to be part of that responsible cutback.''

Milne was elected leader of the Tasmanian Greens in 1993 after Brown resigned, and three years later had her own chance at managing a balance of power with the Liberals. From the start, the new premier, Tony Rundle, predicted a bumpy ride, condemning the Greens' ''anti-development'' ethos, and rejecting Milne's offer of a formal partnership.

According to Herr, this period saw the growth of a more pragmatic Greens leader than her predecessor. ''Bob was regarded as a more messianic figure, and she was much more pragmatically driven,'' Herr says.

Milne counts social achievements in that period including the state's badly needed gay law reform, and the country's first Parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations.

But her relationship with Rundle never warmed. Near the end, the two stood beside each other for the cameras on King Island in Bass Strait to open a wind farm - a symbolic renewable energy project. Off-mike, Rundle joked about putting thousands more turbines in heartland Tasmanian wilderness and Milne rolled her eyes.

In the end, Rundle's frustrations over his inability to introduce economic and political reforms led him to grasp Labor's offer of a bill to slash the size of Parliament - a move directly aimed at the Greens. At the 1998 election that brought Labor's Jim Bacon to power, Milne was one of the casualties and she spent the next six years out of elected office.

Perpetually inquisitive, and the owner of a rolling, infectious laugh, Milne spent this period building global green linkages, particularly in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Roles in ICUN introduced her to change agents of the old world, people such as the Russian environmental scientist and whistleblower Alexey Yablokov. It also enabled her to deepen her knowledge of climate at global talks. In 2004, after four years on Brown's staff, she stood for the federal Senate successfully. In her maiden speech she warned that the Howard government's greenhouse policy threatened to ''condemn our children and our economy to massive disruption in years to come''.

In the Senate she has maintained these global climate connections, and made the complexities of climate policy her own specialty. Yesterday she pointed to development of the Clean Energy package last year as a great achievement of minority government.

''Because minority governments actually make hard decisions,'' Milne said. ''Minority governments also are prepared to take into account on the floor of the Parliament everyone's ideas.''

As she took initial questions on her style of leadership, there were indications that Milne, who grew up on a dairy farm, would seek some compromises that eluded Brown. The bush, she said, had ''missed understanding, if you like, our story. Over time I'm going to try and put that right.''

A pointed reader of finance pages when that was not the ''green'' fashion, Milne also took the first opportunity to engage business.

''I intend to be very proactive about recognising that business in Australia is not heterogeneous, if you like. Business in Australia is now split between the vested interests of the old economy and those businesses that know the new economy and the low-carbon future is the way to go, and I intend to build those relationships.''

After all Milne has been through, Herr sees the new leader as relaxed with the co-management of minority government under Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

''I think the challenge for her is the one that Tony Abbott raised. Bob was seen as a uniting guru figure of the Greens. Whether all the different brands of Green will be as entirely engaged under Christine remains to be seen.''