On 13 April 2012, the Australian Greens announced the replacement for their indefatigable leader, the retiring Senator Bob Brown.  Party elder, tenacious campaigner, and soul of the green movement, Brown would always be hard to replace.  He has served sixteen years in the Australian Senate, and brought the Greens from the political periphery to the centre stage of national parliament. Supporting the Labor minority government and holding the balance of power in the Senate, the Australian Greens are now powerfully positioned.

Testimony to this is the success of incoming leader Christine Milne in negotiating the adoption of a national carbon tax from July 2012. Milne brings a powerful vision and intellect, prodigious political credentials, and enormous enthusiasm to the task of leadership. Her political reach has long been impressive, having represented Tasmania’s rural-regional heartland as an MP, and having now supported both conservative and labor minority governments. 

As party leader of the Tasmanian Greens, she kept a state Liberal minority government in power and achieved significant policy breakthroughs over two years.  These included gun law reform, in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, gay law reform, and a Parliamentary apology to the stolen generation.  Tough negotiation skills tempered by a cogent personal philosophy, informed by consensus-based politics, underscore her strengths.

Her leadership marks an audacious new chapter in the evolution of the Australian Greens and threatens to rattle the established political parties at national levels.  This is, after all, the Green who delivered on her promise to give Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray ‘the biggest shock of his life’ just before helping bring down his government in 1989. Her capacity two decades on to back-foot Australia’s most prominent politicians was clear only days into her leadership of the Greens. 

With bullish, bring it on, certitude, Milne landed Opposition Leader Tony Abbott squarely on the defensive by labelling him ‘pathetic’ on climate change, and his shadow climate minister a ‘wimp’.  Taking no prisoners, she then warned the Labor minority government, which the Greens help support in power, not to pursue a budget surplus at the expense of Australian families.  And in the same week she manoeuvred Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce into the extraordinary position of competing with her over which of them had the truest, traditionally country party, ‘bush’ credentials.

As she embarked last month upon a tour of rural regional Australia, the sceptics jumped all over Milne’s belief that the Greens can make inroads into the rural vote.  And yet the Greens have already worked with conservative rural independents on climate legislation and solar feed-in tariffs.  They have worked with conservative country senators on youth allowances for rural workers.  And they have worked on truth in labelling that appeals to agricultural constituencies; guiding consumers towards Australian made food that is pesticide and GE free. Whilst much divides rural voters and the Greens, Milne is well aware that crucial rural-Green coalitions against the rapacious coal seam gas mining of prime agricultural land are inevitable. 

Changing the political conversation, building coalitions, and practising consensus-based politics to help achieve a clean, green and clever country is very much the Milne credo.  And where better to drive change, not just from the left or right flanks, but ultimately from the economic political centre?  On 4th May 2012, Milne announced that merchant banker, finance academic, and small business owner, Peter Whish-Wilson, would replace Bob Brown on his retirement as a Tasmanian Green Senator. 

If Brown dedicated himself to opposing the environmentally destructive ‘old economy’ of resource exploitation, Whish-Wilson has personally demonstrated the viability of the clean, green, clever ‘new economy’. He is a cross over, new generation Green, an economics graduate from Duntroon, and a lecturer at the University of Tasmania, literate in international, corporate and environmental finance.

He has experience with Merrill Lynch, NY, Deutsch Bank, HK and BHP Billiton and fell in with the Greens whilst opposing the billion-dollar Tamar Valley pulp mill that threatens to destroy his boutique, organic vineyard.  Whish-Wilson takes the Australian Greens, with utmost credibility, into the economic mainstream, with Milne tasking him with helping build a visionary new economic narrative for the nation.

Whish-Wilson is an inspired choice, a nod to the agricultural community, to his Northern Tasmania Tamar Valley roots, and to the Green tradition of campaigning against developments like pulp mills.  And yet, he is an unexpected choice, with a potent twist to the economic centre where he could comfortably converse with deposed Opposition Leader and fellow merchant banker Malcolm Turnbull about the benefits of pricing carbon. 

Of Milne’s many pressing tasks, one of the most crucial and requiring all her negotiating acumen and skill at consensus politics will be to tend to the many shades of Green now jostling within the party.  But for outgoing Senator Bob Brown, Whish-Wilson, the merchant banker, is no contradiction; he is an embodiment of ‘clean, green and clever’ that has inspired Greens for many decades.  Brown is confident that, just like his family’s wines, Whish-Wilson will be a gold medal Greens Senator for Tasmania. 

Dr Kate Crowley is Associate Professor and Head of the School of Government, University of Tasmania