Christine Milne, whose Australian Greens party holds the balance of power in the nation’s Senate, grimaces as she recalls the day an opponent called her a “political slut” in Tasmania’s state parliament.
“It was a dangerous time,” the former high-school teacher, who was jailed during a dam protest in the 1980s, said in an interview in Canberra. “Death threats were fairly common. There’s a lot to be proud of but it’s been a hard journey.”
Milne, 59, has graduated from imprisoned activist to head of a party that forced Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority government to levy a carbon tax, hurting resources companies that underpin Australia’s growth. After taking over in April from Bob Brown, leader of the country’s green movement for three decades, Milne is trying to broaden support for Australia’s third-biggest party as the mining bonanza stalls, threatening the nation’s run of 21 years without recession.
“Following in Brown’s footsteps won’t be easy because he was able to appeal to the baby boomers all the way to Gen Ys,” said Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra. The Greens “are concerned that if they don’t diversify into non-environmental issues they may become too reliant on the far left. They need to create new connections.”
Milne’s challenge is underscored by polls showing support for her party at the lowest in more than three years. The Greens’ approval rating dropped three percentage points to 8 percent, according to a Newspoll survey published today in the Australian newspaper.
At the heart of the political maneuvering ahead of an election that must be held by November 2013 is an economy that has relied for the past decade on China’s demand for energy and minerals. As jobs and investment flowed to the mines in Australia’s north and west, the currency rose 47 percent in the period, hurting exporters in the more populous southeast.
“The old political parties grew out of a period when we regarded the earth’s resources and its ability to absorb waste as being infinite,” Milne said in her office, beneath a picture of a Tasmanian tiger, a carnivorous marsupial that became a conservation symbol after its extinction in the 1930s. “The economic tools have to change. Economic growth has to be decoupled from resource extraction, depletion and pollution.”
Gillard turned to the Greens to help form a government in 2010 after the closest elections in seven decades. The price they extracted for support was a carbon tax, introduced on July 1, that the government forecasts will reap A$24.7 billion ($25.3 billion) in revenue from about 300 of the nation’s biggest polluters within four years. Opposition leader Tony Abbott called the tax a “wrecking ball” for the economy and vowed to rescind it if his Liberal-National coalition gains power.
Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said on Aug. 23 the nation’s mining boom has ended. Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens said the following day that investment in the industry would peak in the next two years.
Milne says she’s aware of the challenge of gaining ground in the lower house, where the party’s sole elected member represents the constituency of Melbourne. Australia’s Labor and Liberal parties have dominated the nation’s politics since the end of World War II. She also needs to maintain the party’s “crucial” balance of power in the Senate, where it holds nine of the 76 seats.
Abbott’s opposition has a 46 percent approval rating, compared with Labor’s 33 percent, accord to the Newspoll survey. The Greens’ 8 percent is the worst since March 2009. The survey of 1,151 people, conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 2, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Milne’s political opponents point to the island state of Tasmania, birthplace of both Milne and the Greens, as an example of what may happen to Australia if her political influence increases.
The Greens have been in a coalition government in Tasmania with Gillard’s Labor party since April 2010, after gaining 22 percent of the vote. It’s the third time since 1989 the Greens have shared power in the state.
The former British convict colony, one of the most brutal in the country at the time, had an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent in July, almost double that of Western Australia.
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett called Tasmania “Australia’s national park” last year, while federal lawmaker Don Randall in 2010 said the state was a “leech on the teat” of the national economy. Tasmania will rely on A$2.88 billion in federal grants this fiscal year to meet government expenditures for its half a million people.
Tasmania has the highest proportion of land in National Parks in Australia. Two chlorine-based pulp mills and a hydroelectric dam by Australia’s largest water manager are among projects that have been blocked by the Greens. About 23 percent of the state is protected from economic development, according to government figures.
“Tasmania is a small, peripheral island in a globalized economy and no one owes it a living,” Tony McCall, a political analyst for the University of Tasmania and a former adviser to the Greens in the early 1990s, said in a phone interview from Launceston. “The state’s high-risk reputation due to stalled projects makes it one of the last places where international capital is going to invest.”
Milne says the problems in the nation’s smallest state are due to failed policies of Labor and Liberal governments, and the Greens need to sell their economic vision better.
“We’ve got good economic policies but we’re not so well known for them, nor do people understand how they connect with our environmental and social policies,” she said.
Those policies include regulation of chief executives’ salaries, no tax cuts for the rich, government ownership of “natural monopolies” and eradicating service taxes.
Milne says her connection to the environment came from an “idyllic” upbringing on the family farm in the rural Tasmanian community of Wesley Vale. After reading history at the University of Tasmania, Milne joined a protest to stop construction of the Franklin Dam, a hydropower project that would have flooded part of the island’s World Heritage-listed temperate rainforest.
“Tasmanian politics in the 1970s and onwards was the forerunner of where the debate would go globally,” said Milne, who named Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Bob Brown as her political heroes. “Until then, the view had been that Tasmania was a commodity ready to be exploited. The debate about whether or not to dam the Franklin River polarized Tasmania and that’s continued to this day.”
More than 1,000 protesters were arrested in clashes with police, and both Milne and Brown, who led the campaign, spent time in Risdon Prison in Hobart.
“It was scary,” Milne said of her three days’ incarceration. “I’d come from a conservative rural community. But still, I realized this is the worst thing that can happen to you in Tasmania for political activism. I thought -- I can survive this. I felt empowered.”
Opposition to the dam helped topple the government and in 1983, the new Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke quashed the project after a High Court battle with the Tasmanian government. Milne settled back into life as a school teacher and mother of two until 1987, when plans to build a pulp mill in Wesley Vale, virtually in her parents’ backyard, revived her protest role.
Milne led the campaign that defeated the mill, the largest industrial infrastructure project in the southern hemisphere at the time, and went on to enter the state parliament, holding the balance of power with Brown and other “Green Independents.”
The Greens broadened their policies to include social reforms such as decriminalizing homosexuality, a move that prompted Liberal politician Michael Hodgman to call Milne “the mother of teenage sodomy.”
“I received shouted abuse across the chamber,” Milne said. “It was really bullying behavior.”
Milne lost her seat in 1998 after the major parties voted to decrease the size of the parliament. In 2004, she followed Brown into the federal arena and was elected to the Senate.
“The word integrity is synonymous in my mind with Christine,” Brown said in a phone interview from Tasmania. “The right-wingers constantly abused her and her family. She has had a lot to put up with but she has prevailed.”
The Greens’ emergence in Australia mirrors gains by environmental groups in other developed nations. The German Greens have a presence in all 16 regional assemblies and control the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The European Green Party won 46 seats at the 2009 European Parliament election, its best result.
As the new leader of the Australian Greens, Milne says she wants to develop a more “cabinet-style approach to showcase the political depth of my team.” She has also tried to improve her communication skills to get the party’s message across, University of Tasmania’s McCall said.
“She’s got a very strong intellect which means she’s terrific at constructing arguments, creating policy and grasping detail,” said McCall. “She’s not so good on the capacity to communicate with people who don’t agree with her vision.”
Milne said she wants to broaden support to appeal to small business-owners and farmers, a strategy that risks alienating the affluent, professionals in cities like Sydney and Melbourne who have become the party’s core, said Zareh Ghazarian, a political analyst in Melbourne at Monash University.
“Milne may struggle to increase the party’s core constituency,” Ghazarian said. “There’s a risk that if they want to attract votes from the political center by becoming more mainstream, they could alienate followers attracted by socially progressive, humanitarian values.”