Opening image: Bob Brown rafting down the Franklin River for the first time, 1976.


Toward the end of The Giants, a documentary film on the life of Bob Brown, Canadian scientist and activist David Suzuki poses a question that he leaves hanging in the breeze.


“Can you imagine Australia without Bob Brown?”


It’s a good question. Certainly, Bob’s home state of Tasmania would today look dramatically different without him. Much of its wilderness – forests, rivers, oceans, wildlife – would no longer be wild, that’s for sure.


The film’s creators have used the towering mountain ash tree, Eucalyptus regnans, as a symbol of Brown’s status as a leader in conservation. They open the film with a tracking shot moving up the trunk of a Styx Valley mountain ash that stretches skyward for the opening minute. But as much as these giants dominate the forest, they create other worlds below their branches. These delicate ecosystems are shaded, sheltered, fed and bound together by the tree. And as forest campaigners will tell you, if you fell one of these giants, these smaller ecosystems are left exposed and vulnerable and the forest is changed forever.

‘The King of the Gums’ – Eucalyptus regnans –tower above Tasmania’s Styx ‘Valley of the Giants.’

Bob Brown is a giant of Australian conservation. Bob is the tree. And like the tree, his legacy – the one you see in the film – is huge, but the legacy you don’t see might be even bigger.

If we didn’t have Bob – and we didn’t have all the groups he’s founded and nurtured and inspired over the years to fight for the Australian wilderness – we’d be left with small groups on the forest floor, who’d be no match for the predatory commercial and political interests who see that wilderness solely as an economic asset to be plundered.

But for all this towering legacy, Bob was – at first anyway – an unlikely environmentalist, an unlikely rebel and an unlikely leader. The son of a Presbyterian mother and a police officer father, he grew up as a quiet, bookish kid in conservative post-war Australia. After leaving school he studied medicine, which focused him squarely on the human condition, although as a young man it was his own human condition he struggled with. Growing up as a gay man at a time when being gay was still illegal in many Australian states forced him to confront his identity at a young age and defiantly confront a society still coming to accept people like him.

But it was moving to Tasmania that would prove pivotal and put him on his life’s mission. He bought a small farmhouse on 10 acres at Liffey, in northern Tasmania. Surrounded by wilderness it became both a sanctuary and an inspiration. “A kaleidoscope of wonders,” as he puts it. Tasmania cast its spell on him and changed his perspective on the world. Bob simply became another organism on an island full of them… an organism however who could eloquently and powerfully speak and act in defence of the ones who couldn’t.

Bob out front of his farmhouse at Liffey, 1976.

At the time, the fledgling Tasmanian environmental movement had its hands full trying to save Lake Pedder. The Tasmanian government was hellbent on damming the lake, which – with the push of a button – it eventually did. The moment was dispiriting, but also a catalyst for a radical shift. As Brown said, “We were going to learn. We were ready after the tragedy of Lake Pedder to fight for the Franklin in a way the Pedder people hadn’t been.” In one of the great understatements of modern activism, Bob reflects, “I got greatly involved.”

Archival footage of Dr. Brown fronting the campaign to save the Franklin River from being dammed shows a young man still uncomfortable as the leader of a movement that was quickly forming around him. “I was very shy,” he offers in the film. “I wasn’t very good on a stage before a microphone. Then it slowly dawned on my self-conscious self; I wasn’t there to talk about myself, I was speaking for the river.” Bob was a very different kind of activist. His gentle manner and measured speech saw him talk softly… but his message and the movement carried a big stick.

As a doctor, he held respectable status in the world beyond the campaign… the world they needed to talk to. The press, the public and politicians would all listen to him. “People in power wear suits, why not protestors?” The secret to the ultimate success of the Franklin campaign was that they moved it out of the Tasmanian wilderness and into the streets of the big mainland cities.

You know how the Franklin campaign ended, and its success launched Bob downriver on a course he’s still travelling today.

“There’s something in the air right now. It’s not going away. It’s going to build.” Bob Brown, 2022. Photo Matt Newton

Over two hours, the filmmakers tell Bob’s story in the big chapters of his life – the Franklin, the Greens, his time in parliament, his partner Paul. But in between these chapters, they return to the forest floor and tell it’s story. They intertwine Bob’s world and the natural world right to the end because the two can’t be separated. That’s how Bob has lived. He immerses himself in the Tasmanian wilderness for clarity and purpose, before heading off to Canberra or Hobart to go and fight for it.

But just like the biggest trees in the forest, Bob won’t be here forever. He’s already left a remarkable legacy. Just the architecture alone he’s helped build – the Wilderness Society, the Greens, the Bush Heritage Fund and the Bob Brown Foundation – will continue his work long after he’s gone. But his personal legacy extends far beyond that. The people he’s inspired and mentored and emboldened – the small trees in the forest – will all in time grow into their roles.

Bob ends the film sitting in a chair, framed by bush on his old Liffey farm, reading a poem dedicated to the generations to come. It’s both hopeful and compelling. “There’s something in the air right now. It’s not going away. It’s going to build.” To finish he then looks down the lens and asks simply, “What did you do, once you knew?”

The Giants is screening in cinemas. Find your local here.

Opening image: Bob Brown rafting down the Franklin River for the first time, 1976.


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