Christine Milne was born in Latrobe, northern Tasmania in 1953. She and her sister grew up on the family dairy farm in the highly productive agricultural district of Wesley Vale. Christine’s mother returned to teaching when she was 5 years old and when she was 10, she was sent to boarding school at St Mary’s College in Hobart.
While her time under the guidance of the nuns imbued in Christine a strong work ethic, a belief that one should have the courage of one’s own convictions and a very strong sense of social justice, it also instilled a stoic capacity for incredible self-contained resilience. Christine describes this capacity to cope with harsh circumstances without revealing her true feelings as having “served me well as a pioneer in politics”.
Pressure to gain scholarships to progress to further education saw Christine sign on for a paid 4-year teacher studentship, which was a barrier to staying on to higher studies at University. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in History but would have loved to have progressed to a Masters, had the studentship rules not prevented it.
Christine married at 22 and has two boys, now aged 25 and 27. She taught at Parklands and Devonport High Schools and the Don College from 1976 to 1984 except for periods of travel overseas. She spent a year in a campervan in Europe in 1978, six months in Asia in 1982 and describes her travels as a social and environmental awakening. Things that she assumed would be there and were taken for granted, were suffering environmental degradation. Back in the classroom after her Asian travels, Christine experienced stark intolerance of newly arrived Vietnamese boat-people, developed a multicultural education programme and was subsequently awarded a Japanese Foundation scholarship.
Although she did have some contact with the campaign to save Lake Pedder in the early 1970s, Christine’s first real involvement with the environment movement came with the national campaign to save the Franklin River from damming by Tasmania’s Hydro-Electric Commission. The time spent in Risdon Women’s prison as a result of her participation in the February 1983 blockade of the river was important, not only in reinforcing her belief that “provided you are of the view that what you have done is right, then it is an empowering experience”. Her time in prison also changed Christine’s views about jail and its impacts on women born into a cycle of injustice. She describes herself as “more compassionate and understanding” and “a better person” because of that experience.
The announcement that North Broken Hill proposed to build, a large-scale native forest and chlorine based pulp mill at Wesley Vale was the real beginning to Christine’s environmental leadership. Determined that the mill should not be allowed to destroy prime agricultural land or to pollute the waters of Bass Strait, Christine very soon became the spokesperson for the local farming community. Although none of the locals had any real experience in campaigning, the CROPS committee (Concerned Residents Opposing Pulpmill Siting) elected to represent the farming community contacted Tasmanian independent MPs Dr Bob Brown and Dr Gerry Bates, national environment groups, scientists and others who might lend support. Christine found her teaching experience very useful running a 24-hour a day, seven day a week campaign.
One of the challenges of the Wesley Vale campaign was in dealing with the media with their focus on hostility and conflict.
In March 1989 the pulp mill proponents withdrew and then Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray called an election focused on the mill. Christine ran as the candidate in the seat of Lyons for The Independents, a team of five like-minded environmentalists including Bob Brown and Gerry Bates. She comments that “Having led the campaign against the pulp mill, I had no option but to run.”.
Christine describes the early 1990s as “hostile and difficult” – a time when she experienced abuse wherever she went. Parents and friends lent support and cared for her children while she was campaigning. When she was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament, her husband took leave from his job to be with the children, which he did for several years while working part-time.
While she had no formal mentors, Christine draws her inspiration from Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has made so many personal sacrifices and South African apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, whose lack of bitterness towards others she greatly admires. The writings of civil rights leader Martin Luther King and 19th Century naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau remain core references for her.
Having worked with him in politics since 1989, Christine describes Bob Brown as a friend and inspiring colleague, and says she admires greatly his vision for a better world, unswerving optimism , dedication to the protection of nature and ability to withstand personal abuse.
Between 1998 when Christine lost her seat in the Tasmanian Parliament and 2004 when she was elected to the Australian Senate, she found it difficult to get work in Tasmania – a problem she attributes to her political opponents at the time. She was, however, Australia’s representative to the global Council of IUCN (the world conservation union) from 2000, and in 2004 became its Vice-President.
A decision to contest a Senate seat at the 2004 Federal election saw Christine elected to the position she has held since 1 July 2005. She became the Australian Greens Deputy Leader in 2007 and succeeded Bob Brown as Leader in 2012. She describes her motivation for taking on this new challenge as wanting to drive some strong environmental outcomes, in the face of accelerating climate change. She finds it very satisfying that after driving that agenda for the past 6 years, the Greens balance of power in the Federal Parliament enabled the setting up of a Multi Party Climate Committee, which delivered a comprehensive clean energy package for the nation. It is a role in which Christine has been able to make changes happen in ways that are consistent with her own conscience.
Asked about the biggest difficulties in providing leadership, Christine highlighted the huge level of responsibility and the way it takes over your life.
Asked about any differences between men and women in leadership positions in the environment movement, Christine indicated that she doesn’t see it as a gender based thing. Rather, it is about ways of working, good communication skills, and an ability to engage an audience, inspire, network and work with people. Christine sees a lot of women who choose not to stand up as a leader – people who are not prepared to put themselves up for the levels of exposure involved and the media intrusion. For her, this is not a job, it’s a vocation. She sees doing this as easier than not doing it. She feels a sense of obligation to achieve at the highest level, so “not doing it would be a selfish choice”.
Christine sees the real leadership in the current environment movement as being among the young women who run community-based local campaigns, such as Climate Action Groups or the Huon Valley Environment Centre and Still Wild-Still Threatened groups campaigning for Tasmania’s forests. It may be that this fits well with their sense of local identity, and their stage of life spending time at home with their children and that hopefully, they will move on to the national stage later.
While the mainstream environment movement is supposed to work more in consensus mode, Christine observes that unless the rules are established at the start, then a few voices still dominate and those voices are frequently male.
Asked about mentoring, Christine stressed the advice she gives is about the importance of building relationships of trust and respect. Leadership positions need to be part of a culture of respect, trust and honesty, rather than being focused on ‘the numbers’ and political ideology.
Interview write up by Judy Lambert
(original interview with Jane Elix)
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