Frontier Politics Down Under

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner stated in his paper ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ that

This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.

In this quote, we would do well to note the watchwords of ‘rebirth’, ‘fluidity’, ‘expansion’, ‘simplicity’, ‘primitive’ and ‘character’. In our time this idea of the American West lingers, not least in discussions of Silicon Valley and in our political ideas of what is possible in plastic free Berkeley and even LA with its $15 minimum wage. We would also do well to make the observation that Turner made his argument as the frontier as a lived material reality was closing. The frontier was no longer the continental West but found in Cuba, the Phillipines and the colonial elsewhere, which Turner did indeed foreshadow. This was yet another owl of Minerva.

But Turner could also have been speaking about Australia or South Africa or Canada or New Zealand. He may have even pre-empted a sort of transnational settler society notion of identity. And yet he didn’t. Indeed, his work fits in with a longer and ongoing tradition of American exceptionalism. America, brave and free, and wholeheartedly alone. The West defines American character then, singular as it is; but other nations had and have their own ‘Wests’. In other words, there are always frontiers even as these are simply borderlands with Othered places. Perhaps though, in the mediated global imagination of today, Australia, the land of Crocodile Hunter, still resembles some sort of wilderness, some sort of green space where men are men and women are manly too. Even in the Survivor universe Australia has special significance for breaking contestants.

As central as the frontier is to the depiction of Australian life, this not only conveniently forgets the political importance of the suburbs as the majoritarian voting block, which connects it to America yet again, but it also neglects the competing types of ideology that exist in the spaces known as ‘bush’ or ‘outback’. What in other words are the debates that occur ‘out there’, away from the cities and centres of power? There is, of course, an argument to be made that this is where the deep political thinking happens, an argument that has been seen in historians’ debates about the empire and the colonies (think Sidney Mintz for one).

Finding roots for various moments, strains of thought, policies, movements will always be contested. That is one of the great things about historical materialist method – that the debate revolve around sources in the archive rather than simply through fantastical lenses. Discussion of the past is not antithetical to a life of political action either. Political leaders continue to evince a sincere interest in office holding forebears (Winston Churchill remains required reading for hegemonic actors across the Anglophone world). Having said that, it is not historians who write policy even if ideologically speaking we always have a sediment of words from the past – Marxist being a foremost one for my liking as well as that fundamental, and false, binary of left and right. But the frontier, as a concept as well as a lived reality, has furnished Australia, and by extension a large part of the world, with the ecological consciousness necessary for Green politics to manifest as it does today.

Green politics has many beginnings. One could think of pastoral poetry from the Greeks, one could think of national parks and John Muir in California in the late nineteenth century, one could think of the Whole Earth Catalogue from the late 1960s, one could think too of any time some sadhu sat under a tree and turned developers away with a blithe flick of the wrist. Foucault, drawing on Nietzsche, preferred genealogies to roots, preferred to think less of origins and more of changes, and would not have argued what was the appropriate birth moment of the Green movement but may have addressed the distinct change in language between Copenhagen and Paris.

There is though recognition that formal Green politics started with the United Tasmania Group in 1972 at the Hobart Town Hall. Here at the bottom of Australia the group formed to campaign against the flooding of Lake Pedder and is often cited as the first Green political party. The UTG lasted for five years and much of that early energy and many of those people moved into the Tasmanian Greens in subsequent years. The formation of the Greens was parliamentary recognition, parliamentary acknowledgement of a type of person, a lifestyle, a body of thought that had hitherto been ignored, marginalised, nascent. That Greens politics is central to debates now underscores not only its humble beginnings but also the importance of the natural world in an anthropocenic moment. How times have changed.

Central to the success of the Greens in Australia has been Bob Brown. Brown was born in 1944 and grew up in New South Wales. He trained as a doctor and became engaged in Green activism in the 1970s. He refused to certify conscripts for the Vietnam War. In 1976 he fasted for a week on top of Mt Wellington in protest against the arrival at Hobart of the nuclear-powered warship USS Enterprise. In the late 1970s he helped lead the campaign to prevent construction of the Franklin Dam, which would have drowned the Franklin River Valley. Brown was among 1500 people arrested while protesting its construction. He spent 19 days in Hobart’s Risdon Prison. On the day of his release in 1983, he became a member of Tasmania’s parliament. In 1996 he became a senator for the national parliament and by his retirement 2012 had helped grow the Greens vote to being consistently over 10%. They are now represented at every level of parliament in Australia. In addition, he was the first openly gay member of Australian parliament and the first gay leader of an Australian political party. Brown’s contribution to public thought has come in the form of three books – Memo for a Saner World (2004), One Person, One Value (2012) and Optimism (2015).

I want to focus briefly on Optimism. After Terry Eagleton, we might want to question optimism at a conceptual level. Eagleton makes a strong claim for hope without optimism in his latest book (which bears the same title). Brown though is a practical man of action. Optimism is a book recounting those actions. Told in a series of short chapters (often no more than a few pages) the work is a memoir of a life as an activist and politician. With Brown the personal was political and there are many anecdotes about the intersection of his sexuality, environmentalism and role in Australian public offices. The book is part exploration (the literal mapping of the Franklin River and Nelson Falls for example, p. 83); part reverie (see his respite in Liffey during the breakdown of the Greens-Labour Party Accord in 1991-1992, p. 77); part enlightening political process drama from the inside (see Timor Leste, p. 88); part pearls of wisdom (‘you can judge a nation by how it treats its neighbours, and judge it best by how it treats the least of them’, p. 92). What it suggests though are the contours of Green thought as a local and global ideological movement. This is the frontier of a new kind of politics as Brown describes it. As he writes, ‘there are four pillars of Greens political philosophy: social justice, democracy, peace and ecological well-being’ (187). For him though, the outlook need be positive. On several occasions he observes difficulty in the world, an objectively depressing fact for example, and then counters it by saying that together we can change it. For Brown, ‘optimism, like pessimism, feeds on itself and, having tried the latter for a decade or so when I was younger, I recommend optimism any time. Beside being more enjoyable, it gets things done.’ (262) Elsewhere, he states ‘the challenge to intelligent, sensitive folk is to take over. To do that, the people must be won over.’ (xii) He then styles himself as a defender of ecological centred values, not only of refugees, workers and battlers, but also trees, whales, goshawks. The Green fight is against neo-liberalism, colonialism, materialism as well as human centeredness.

Brown is a poet too. For all his radical political sympathies, Brown comes across as somewhat romantic and dated in his poetry. His is the poetry of place, the poetry of sentiment and attachment to the natural world. And perhaps he should not be blamed for this shortcoming. Many poets from Robert Frost to Charles Olson to Les Murray have made great work from specific locatedness. Brown is after all a practical man, a man of action, not necessarily unreflective but perhaps unconcerned by the arguments of today’s professional poets and literary critics. There is though a inconsistency with his politics for his art is essentially conservative. However, it might simply be enough that he creates something, writes any poetry at all, in this era of grey flannel suit, machine men political functionaries.

If Brown deals in policy, for ecologically informed radical Australian poetry one need turn to people like John Kinsella and journals like Plumwood Mountain. It is necessary though to have policy and poetry complement each other. This is because poetry is the formally challenging expression of political ideas that need have material consequences. Moreover, difficult ideas need difficult language and to solve difficult problems means having an ability to think deeply and critically in order to analyse and create the solution. That means poets have as much place at the round table of practical action as do activists, pragmatists and others. Whether they want to be in that context is a question that need be answered by them. But it does convey some of the political importance of ‘defamiliarisation’ if not a way of making things new.

Russian literary theorist Victor Shlkovsky introduced the term defamiliarised in his essay ‘Art as Technique’ in 1917. He used it as a way to differentiate ‘habit’ from art. We could think of habit as automatic, assumed, naturalised, entrained. We have become so used to this type of politics, this way of living, this way of engaging with the world and language, that it is all but unconscious. In contrast poetry ‘exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’. Poetry makes one aware of the perception of things, which could mean becoming aware of the difficulty of language, the constructedness of language, the fact that there are multiple meanings and strange arrangements of words all around us. We know poetry is to some degree a performance of language and in it we see that the world is a stage. It is like a stone in the shoe that makes you aware of how you step. We need defamiliarisation in our politics too – we need mavericks, we need radicals, we need people who see the context as flawed and intervene in it in an altogether new and exciting way. We need structural change and revolution through the defamiliarising presence of poets. We needed the UTG and Bob Brown for that very reason. We still need them, albeit re-made for our current era where Green politics is no longer in and of itself radical.

In highlighting Brown though I do not want to repeat a ‘great man of history’ argument, conservative and anachronistic as that is, but rather to draw on the available sources for an essay such as this. To be certain, the Greens are made up of their members, their voters, and by the geist, labour and accumulation of possibility that exist in their history and present as defined by ordinary people. But in the historical record there is not a Thompsonian account of the habits of these people, nor an adequate way of understanding how this informs our political worldviews. They lack then a genuine intellectual class, a class of writers, who can discuss what it means at the level of policy and ideology to be Green. This is not to say it does not exist entirely, but that the market, audience, space that is open to such a perspective lacks the volume and penetration of that available to the hegemonic left, which in Australia coalesces around the Australian Labour Party and trade unions, and which one sees most obviously in the journal Overland.

The contemporary Greens Party will cut itself off from its activist roots at its peril. One challenge is to maintain its truth content despite the green-washing that works fist in glove with consumer capitalism. Basic interventions like banning certain types of plastics, taxing unsustainable goods, regulating multinational tax avoidance, closing refugee detention centres, safeguarding sacred sites, continuing to advocate for LGBTQI rights, are all work that is necessary to a Greens agenda. This is work that is local and global, but being informed by the ideological and poetic agenda of its history will ensure that an ecological left can grow well into the future and in so doing change what is possible in an eviscerated and emaciated mainstream body politic. And that surely, is the frontier to come.

When read alongside the context of American politics now, it might not be about only recognising a radical tradition from within the national frame but allowing the influence of other places to manifest as meaningful policies and ideologies. In the post-war period it was an enduring smear tactic of the right to tar communism and socialism as inherently foreign, of saying they were un-American. This charge still exists today, not least in the semiotic economy where red, white and blue predominate for no good reason at all and to the eyes of foreigners the excessive flag-waving and lapel-badge wearing seem to be cloying expressions of a militarised and paranoid body politic. But in connecting the American frontier to the ecological concerns that the world shares and finding in the activism of others who used innovative and radical techniques one begins to see that maybe a climate changed world can become a little less bleak; that there is a way through the morass of stale microbeaded swamplands that pass for mainstream political action, and, perhaps, together we can find a path of action that is truly optimistic.

Robert Wood holds degrees in economics, history and literature from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania. He works for the Australian journal Overland.