Saturday, May 12, 2012

Senator-elect Peter Whish Wilson: Confounding the Green stereotype

First published in The Australian
"IT was a confession I hadn't expected from the nation's newest Green and imminent Senate replacement for the party's departing deity, Bob Brown.
"I voted for John Howard, absolutely," Greens senator-elect Peter Whish-Wilson says.
I knew the 44-year-old vigneron had some conservative skeletons in his political closet, notably a career as a high-flying investment banker. But I hadn't realised that the man chosen by the Greens to fill Brown's Tasmanian Senate seat was once a virtual pin-up boy for the Christian Right.
 His upbringing and much of his adult life reads like a job application for a safe Liberal Party seat.
 The son of a former air force wing commander and Rio Tinto executive, descendant of Tasmanian timber men, Whish-Wilson was a prefect at a posh school, Guildford Grammar, near Perth.
There, on the banks of the Swan River, he took school colours in just about everything from debating, swimming, footy and rowing to athletics, while his father exploited Western Australia's iron ore resource.
As a teenager, he won the WA State Rostrum Award and a scholarship to the Australian Defence Force Academy, where he became a cadet captain and officer training graduate.
A self-described "strong Christian" until his early 20s, he studied a double major in economics and then a masters. While studying, he worked for BHP and the Institute of Public Affairs.
A career in investment banking almost inevitably followed, taking him to senior roles with Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank in New York, Melbourne, Hong Kong and finally Sydney.
 Throughout almost all this time he was anything but green. "I was a Liberal voter, in line with a lot of people in Australia and in line with my family," he explains with characteristic frankness. "I did have conservative values."
 His politics were not to change until 2003, when Howard led Australia into the Iraq war. "That was the last time I ever voted for the Liberal Party," he says.
 The September 11 terrorist attacks on his old New York stomping ground and the Iraq war led to a reappraisal of life, as well as politics.
 He had been taking a correspondence course in grape growing, with an eye to viticulture on his parents' farm in the Tamar Valley, north of Launceston.
 Part-time fancy became preoccupation. "It gave me a whole new perspective on things that were tangible because economics and finance (are) not always tangible, it's always chaos theory," he says.
 He quit as a senior vice-president with Deutsche Bank later in 2003 to take the next year out of high finance to "do my first vintage" and "get some head space" in Tasmania.
 His idyll on the banks of the Tamar River was shattered, though, by timber company Gunns' plans to build a world-scale pulp mill on his doorstep. Cue another life-changing experience, as he became a key figure in a national campaign to stop the mill.
 During the fever pitch of the debate in 2006 and 2007, he was visited by Brown, who brought with him sympathetic Sydney businessman Geoffrey Cousins. Brown impressed him, but he was not yet willing to embrace the Greens.
 "I didn't want to be associated with the Greens, for the sole reason that I felt that the organic status I had as a campaigner would be too easily swept from under my feet," he explains. "As soon as people branded you as being a greenie, what you said was worthless; you were just a trouble-making greenie."
 After state parliament accepted the pulp mill permits, on August 29, 2007, following a bitterly controversial fast-track approval process, Whish-Wilson opened his arms to the Greens.
 "I felt like, after that, whatever you did as an organic campaigner really didn't matter," he says.
 He surprised friends by "running my colours up the mast" and standing for the Greens against pro-mill upper house MP Ivan Dean in the local seat of Windermere in 2009. "The Greens had the resources in place and I looked at them and thought: 'Well, I've got very similar principles to them, they've supported me and the rest of the anti-pulp mill campaign, they've never deviated from their stance,' " he says.
 He scored 16 per cent of the vote in a wide field in a less than Green seat, and went on to run for the party in the 2010 state election, then on the Senate ticket with Christine Milne at the federal poll later that year.
 The transition from Christian conservative to Green convert was complete, although the process may still not have progressed far enough for some Greens.
 Whish-Wilson has never manned a barricade, much less been arrested. Until 2003, he hadn't attended a protest and even then it was against war, not on behalf of the environment.
 Widely seen as a "light green", the father of two talks of helping the party "evolve" and broaden its voter base. "That might raise some eyebrows, but I'm just being honest," he says.
 Encouraged by the party's stated willingness to tolerate "conscientious objections", he will continue to "speak from the heart".
 "If the Greens want to grow their vote, you need to oppose things you feel strongly about - as I have with the pulp mill - but ... propose alternative pathways," he argues. "If you just oppose things, you run the risk of being seen as purely oppositional and obstructive to a number of voters' wealth and wellbeing.
 "I think it's important for the Greens to be constructive. They'll get better environmental and social outcomes if they are."
 Milne, keen to increase the party's support in the bush and among "progressive" business, and to keep the hard Left of her party in check, appears to have given Whish-Wilson her blessing to continue eyebrow-raising.
 He hopes his experience of developing successful small businesses - the winery and, with wife Natalie, a growing Launceston physiotherapy practice - will "bring perspectives" to the Greens' partyroom table. "Perspectives of what it's like when you get an industrial relations change that impacts your business," he says, by way of example.
 He confesses he had to raise some "issues" about his view of Greens' policies with the party selection panel that chose him to replace Brown.
 "I don't think they're going to be huge issues for me," he insists.
 He believes in sensitive tourism within national parks, a tricky issue for the Greens, but stresses his support is for low-impact huts rather than hotels.
 Brown, who had a vote on the panel that chose Whish-Wilson, backs his replacement. However, Brown refuses to say whether he voted for him, citing the secrecy of the ballot.
 Whish-Wilson is unfazed: "I've got his support. I don't know if he voted for me. I never will."
 The first test of this passionate surfer and Surf Rider Foundation board member will be at next year's federal election, when his seat will be contested. He faces a battle to hold on to Brown's substantial personal vote.
 "It's like riding a giant wave: I've made a take-off, which is the scariest part. (But) the most dangerous part is whether I have enough speed to come up the line or whether I'm going to be devoured.
 "It could be the ride of my life or I could get held down. Who knows?"
 Either way, it will be a fascinating ride for the unlikely Green and his "evolving" party.

Read full article here in The Australian

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