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Thursday, 26 April 2012

OPINION Susan Mitchell

 IN ONE hour on the ABC’s Q & A program, Bob Brown set a new standard as a man, as a politician and as an Australian. It was as refreshing as it was humbling.

I must confess I had previously allocated him a box which was labelled earnest, politically pure, boring but a basically decent bloke. There isn’t a plainer name, a less glamorous leader, a straighter shooter in the parliament.

Straight, however, he is not. Not that there is any hint of campness or Mardi Gras about him, but he is the first openly gay political leader in Australia. It was a first to see a party leader resign with his same-sex partner standing beside him. No one batted an eye. The sky did not fall in.

It was a huge step forward for him and the nation. It hasn’t been an easy journey for him. Brown has been very open about the fact that when he was a young doctor, he underwent shock therapy in an attempt to rid himself of his homosexuality. When it failed, he resigned himself to the truth of how he was “wired”.

Even if that meant he was doomed to a life of loneliness and abuse, he was determined to be true to himself. Coming out as a gay man on a small island like Tasmania – where his father was a policeman, his family were committed Presbyterians, and the laws against homosexuality were the most backward in the nation – meant open verbal abuse and strangers stubbing out cigarettes on his hands. He took it all without becoming abusive or bitter, and threw himself into saving the ancient forests and rivers of the country he loved.

Brown’s passion and his commitment to these causes ultimately led him to become the leader of the Greens and an increasingly powerful force in Australian politics.

 The man, however, never changed. What we witnessed on national television was the same man we had come to know over the past 20 years. His manner was always unaffected and modest. His tone of voice was as flat and undramatic as it had always been. Spin was never part of his repertoire. If you have total belief and a passion for what you believe, you don’t need to use spin or artifice.

His language was as uncluttered and unpretentious as his Presbyterian upbringing had trained him to be. Simply say what you believe to be the truth and make no apology for it. If people don’t like it, they are free to disagree. Argue the case and not the person. Never ridicule someone for having a different opinion but don’t be afraid to state your argument boldly and back it up with the relevant facts. Just because you can’t convince others to agree with you is no reason to give up.

If this makes him sound like a saint who has never made a mistake, that is a false impression. He freely admits he has been wrong over some issues. When a member of the audience quoted from an article in which Brown stated he was in favour of coal-based power, he simply said: “Well, if it’s quoted in the paper, it must be right. And clearly what I said then was wrong.” Simple as that. No explanation, no obfuscation, no squirming weasel words.

Why can’t the leaders of the major parties follow his example? I have never heard either of them admit they were wrong about anything they have said or done. Why don’t they get it? We don’t want political snake-oil salesmanship, we don’t want media-trained spin, we don’t want the party line dressed up in fancy jargon.

We want them to communicate in clear, concise language. And that does not mean empty slogans or patronising platitudes. We want them to state the truth as they believe it. And if they have been wrong, to admit it. We are all human, after all; we all make mistakes.

It just takes guts to admit it and wear the consequences. We can forgive misdemeanours or errors of judgement. What we can’t forgive is hypocrisy.

Bob Brown made it very clear that he is not a practising Christian but he also emphasised that the Presbyterian principles on which he was raised still form the basis of his ethical framework, the tenets of which are justice and a fair-go for all.

I like to think these are the same tenets that make us proud to be Australian. We have always turned our backs on British snobbery and its unjust class system. We have always tried to base our laws on a balance between the power of the market and the rights of workers. We have always tried to give a fair-go to everyone who comes to this country and wants to become an Australian. We believe people are innocent until proven guilty, despite media beat-ups. We believe in free speech and freedom of worship. We believe in the separation of church and state. We expect our political leaders to govern not just for the present but for the future of our nation and our children. We believe that all Australians are equal whatever their race, religion, gender or sexuality.

I heard Bob Brown state these same beliefs openly and unashamedly. I want to hear the leaders of the two major political parties state them openly also. I want them to justify why both of them are not in favour of equality in marriage for those who seek it. If Tony Abbott’s religious beliefs prevent him from endorsing it, then why can’t he admit that, openly and unashamedly. Why has he prevented his party from having a conscience vote on the issue, especially when the latest poll shows that 58 per cent of Australians are in favour of equality in marriage. If Julia Gillard refuses to agree with the majority, she should give her reasons. Why does she believe in equality for all areas other than marriage? Just in case you think I am pushing a line for the Greens under the guise of praising their former leader, let me state that I have never voted Green. This is not about party politics, this is about what Bob Brown has to teach us as a human being, a politician and an Australian.

What we are seeking from Slippergate is the truth. Tony Abbott harms his cause by seeking to throw mud at the government. He should have learned that mud has a nasty way of sticking on the hands of the thrower. If Peter Slipper is guilty of the allegations against him, then he will have to wear the consequences. If he is not and they are shown to be fabrications and entrapment employed for political advantage, just as the allegations against Michael Kirby were, then mud will stick no matter who laid the traps.

Both sides should shut up until the truth and the facts are established. Trial by media is un- Australian and politicians who seek to gain from it will be punished.

susanmitchell.com.au

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