Optimism: Reflections on a Life of Action by Bob Brown

Amid contemporary figures in Australian public life, Greens party founder Bob Brown is an iconoclast. This book of anecdotes is neither a traditional nor entirely chronological memoir. With optimism as the common theme, Brown tells 53 stories, each centred on a meaningful memory or lesson learnt. A country doctor turned politician by way of environmental activism, Brown describes personal milestones in the first 15 stories. By the last 10 stories, some beginnings have come full circle. Fittingly, his beloved bush property, Oura Oura, appears in this narrative, as do idyllic scenes of the surrounding Liffey Valley. Purchased in 1973, Oura Oura was donated in 2011 to Bush Heritage Australia, an organisation Brown founded in 1991.

However, unlike the aged miner he encounters at the Ulverstone bus shed in Tasmania, Brown is deeply engaged not just with the ‘living wilds’ but also with the body politic. The remaining stories are about professional milestones and impressions of, among others, a ‘stately’ Julia Gillard and an ‘affable’ Tony Abbott. Supplemented by excerpts from Hansard records, news publications, memos and private notes, the sum is a portrait of an uncommon politician. One story is that of Nigel Brennan, a photojournalist held hostage in Mogadishu, whose plight went unresolved under the Rudd government. Brown contributed a substantial personal amount towards the ransom demanded by Brennan’s kidnappers. After 460 days in captivity, Brennan was released in 2009. A related senate inquiry (moved by Brown) recommended a more compassionate approach by the government when assisting relatives of kidnapped Australian citizens.

Narrating in his own inimitable style – he recalls once being likened to ‘a latter-day John Lennon’ by the Herald Sun’s Patrick Carlyon – Brown reflects on life choices that inspire all the more for his having overcome existential despair and common self-doubt. From 1996 to 2012, Brown led the Greens from Oura Oura to Parliament House, and from a marginal state group to a significant force in the federal parliament. Then, as now, Brown conveyed ideas in plain yet poetic language. True to form, he addressed a 2012 audience in Hobart as ‘Fellow Earthians’ before advocating for global equity and personal optimism. Optimism, according to Brown, ‘gets things done’. The pillars of the Greens’ political philosophy (social justice, democracy, peace and ecological wellbeing) recur not just in Brown’s senate motions and town hall speeches, but also in a life lived conscientiously. His is a remarkable life for it.

Maloti Ray is a freelance reviewer.