Senator Bob Brown's retirement had to happen soon given his age and the length of his time as a political activist, but like the long-expected death of a parent it doesn't make the transition any easier when it finally happens. There are always risks because no one can guarantee how a new leader will perform and, more importantly, be received.
The emphasis on renewal of the party is to be applauded. It is not easy to achieve, as that other small party in Australian politics, the Nationals, is finding. It, too, needs to renew its leadership, but Barnaby Joyce is finding resistance to a move into the House of Representatives.
Christine Milne was elected as Brown's successor by her party room in a remarkably conservative fashion for a radical, new politics party. There was no hint of wider membership or community involvement. And she was elected smoothly and unanimously by recent Australian standards. Note the spite in recent Labor and Liberal leadership contests. Both of these elements are good for a party approaching a dangerously turbulent period of federal politics. The Greens certainly didn't need turmoil, or even a fractious leadership contest, at this stage of their development.
Leadership is a very important factor in today's politics. Recent minor parties have been blessed with noteworthy leaders. The Australian Democrats had stand-out leaders like Don Chipp, Janine Haines and Cheryl Kernot. But the Greens have had Bob Brown for a much longer period than any of these, given he has led the Greens into the past four federal elections.
The Greens need Milne to be successful and she has big boots to fill. After all, Brown was recently rated by The Australian newspaper as the most influential figure in Australian politics, ahead of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. While that was an exaggeration, he certainly should have been ranked in the top half dozen. Milne inherits the high expectations that go with a balance-of-power leader.
All new leaders find it tough at the beginning. The glowing political obituaries for Brown have emphasised the difficulties. But Milne's task is not impossible. The Greens have not been a one-person party. The Australian Election Study, which has rated Brown's performance vis-a-vis his party over the past four elections, shows this. In fact at the 2010 election Brown himself was rated, like all the party leaders, as less popular with the electorate than the party they led. In Brown's case the difference was marginal. This was at a time when none of the leaders were especially popular. The full discussion is contained in an academic study, Julia 2010: The caretaker election.
Leadership in the Greens is a contested concept which makes the job especially stressful. The authority of the leader is limited by the internal party culture of grass-roots participation and egalitarianism. Milne, like Brown, will have to come to grips with this. But, as a former Tasmanian Greens leader, she must already know the pitfalls.
Brown found that his leadership had limits whenever he tried to impose his will. This makes Milne's task harder. The Greens took the tantalising decision to make lower house MP Adam Bandt their deputy leader. This could be a statement of the Greens' aspirations to grow the party in the House of Representatives, or a recognition of Bandt's talent, despite the difficult task he has to be re-elected in his inner-city seat. Either way he balances Milne in various ways. Leadership is also crucial for the internal stability and cohesion of any party. In the case of the Greens there are many state and philosophical differences to massage. Milne either has to anticipate her colleagues' views or take them with her. The internal dynamics of the party will inevitably change.
There are immediately recognisable similarities and differences between Brown and Milne. Like Brown she comes from the party's heartland in Tasmania. Leading a party from a small state, as Democrats leaders often did, has its challenges and makes you an outsider to the big media outlets based in Melbourne and Sydney. Remember Labor's Kim Beazley set up a base in Sydney to counter the fact that he was from Western Australia.
She is yet another woman leader, which will once again rekindle debate about the gender characteristics of leadership as Anna Bligh's recent defeat in Queensland did. Women already disproportionately support the party. Men are harder to reach.
She cannot personally embody, as Brown did, the Greens' approach to gay rights and same-sex marriage, though she can still be a powerful advocate. Indeed it will be interesting to see how she approaches the secular/religious divide that characterised Brown's big battles with Cardinal George Pell and the Australian Christian Lobby. Educated at St Mary's College, Hobart, she has had links over the years with the Catholic church's environmental agencies.
We only really get to know a political leader once they get the top job - even if they have been deputy leader, as Milne has. The new leader is given much broader opportunities to speak and additional media coverage. They have to discover a new style to differentiate themselves from their predecessor in the public mind.
We must wait to see how different Milne turns out to be. Already she has tried to make her mark through a new rural and regional strategy. She must increase the Greens' vote once again at the next federal election to guarantee three more years holding the balance of power.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.