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Bob Brown and Kerry O’Brien have the crowd at ‘Hello’

The place to be on Friday morning at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival was in the SCU Marquee, where an overspill of human bodies gathered to listen to the gospel in the form of Bob Brown, environmentalist and former Greens leader and Kerry O’Brien, former host of the ABC’s 7:30 Report, and current host of Four Corners.

The seats in the marquee were filled so it was standing room and butts-on-grass room for everyone else, as the crowd was warned that the aisles must be kept clear in case of an emergency.

Somehow I doubted that any one person in the throng would give up their spot, not even in the case of fire or a sudden apocalyptic storm, not until the two awaited preachers had been and gone.

This is the power of influential people: they draw the crowds to them like nothing else, crowds out to hear the witty anecdotes and inspirational statements.

And they were rewarded in kind, of course.

The hour, which began and ended with the predictable raucous applause and standing ovations, was filled with an intense yet extremely human discussion. The just retired politician showed that one person can be something, that one person can affect change, that so much can be achieved by ‘people power’.

And ‘people power’ seemed to be the theme of the session.

Instantly establishing the importance of this term, and democracy on the whole, Kerry O’Brien saluted the third empty chair on the stage. The empty chair was dedicated to Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Prize winning writer and human rights activist currently incarcerated in China as a political prisoner.

A sombre mood was produced as it is realized that the democracy and successes of this ‘people power’ that Bob Brown and Kerry O’Brien were here to celebrate aren’t necessarily a truth for citizens every part of the world.

Not yet. But we can hope, said Bob. That’s the beauty of people power, you may achieve things you never imagined.

Naturally, the subject of the discussion quickly turned to Bob’s days as a young adult, and the difficulties he faced as a young homosexual man, before reflecting on more modern times, when advocacy and knowledge has helped to progress the views on the issue in Australian society. Abuse is down and acceptance is high.

But the Australian political discussion of same-sex issues, Bob points out, is “way behind.”

“It’s extraordinary that both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard are opposed to equal marriage, to ending discrimination,” Bob marveled.

The discussion then turned toward the more positive topic of the Franklin River Campaign, still Bob’s milestone moment, the epitome of this ‘people power’. The win of the Franklin River ‘No Dams’ case was, after all, in Bob’s words, “due to a democracy being informed”.

Here lies our theme, the simple power of a population banding together for a cause and achieving something incredible, when they receive the information that they need.

With the attention of all in attendance deeply captured, the third American president Thomas Jefferson was quoted: “Information is the currency of democracy,” quipped Kerry as Bob nodded, and a knowing hush fell cliché-like across the crowd. These guys know what they’re doing.

As the conversation flowed from the Greens successes in parliament, to the win with the Carbon Tax, due to help from Labor, Bob expressed his thanks to Julia Gillard, and saluted her for keeping her word to him on that matter.

As modestly as he can though, Bob admitted that “without the Greens, that package wouldn’t have gotten through parliament,” and is met with a cheer and applause from the crowd. They obviously agree.

“I think we should face up to it, not put our heads in the sand,” Bob said on the topic of climate change. This simple statement is met again with applause from the crowd. Bob Brown definitely had got the crowd eating out of his hands. And for good reason.

Once again, they’ve done it. They’ve wowed a crowd. Bob Brown has proved his worth as an inspirational environmentalist and politician, and Kerry O’Brien has proved why he’s won six Walkley Awards. They know how to treat the people. And the people love them for it.

Marnie Johnston is a Southern Cross University media student.



  1. Marian Edmunds says

    Nice post Marnie. I add a few random notes from the session – Bob Brown being interviewed by Kerry O’Brien

    Bob Brown’s father was a police constable and his mother was a divorcee so it was difficult for them to find someone who would marry. Eventually a Presbyterian minister in Sydney married them.
    He once bought home some wildflowers and his mother told him they were best left in the bush where they would last rather than in a vase. This stayed with him.
    Visiting Coffs Harbour High School this week Bob Brown asked the principal were the cane was kept. He remembered how he once got the cane for watching a whale from the classroom at the school. (It made me think of the view and Muttonbird Island and when I lived in the same street as the school.)

    At dinner with Julia Gillard and Tim Matheson after Brown had left politics, Brown’s partner, Paul Thomas asked Prime Minister Julia Gillard about her view
    of marriage equality. The PM gave the same answer that she has given to the public, one that Brown can’t understand. “One day we’ll catch up with Catholic Spain ..”
    Bob Brown was distraught when he was handed the school captaincy at Blacktown Boys High. He wasn’t good at sports but once won a hurdles race. He felt great inner turmoil as a teen and young man because he was gay and couldn’t tell anyone. This would last for years during which he would seek all sorts of help. Eventually he went to the UK and a psychologist said to him, “Why not be who you are?”

  2. Pingback: Bob Brown: optimism and self-confidence in today’s society | BYRON BAY WRITERS' FESTIVAL

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