Saturday, March 3, 2012



Bob Carr did come to Canberra in the end . . .


In late 1987 Labor was on the ropes in New South Wales. The party had been sitting on the government benches in Macquarie Street since 1976: the electoral clock had begun to tick loudly. Few had any that as soon as a vote was held, the state’s government would be turffed out.

Nevertheless, the impending electoral catastrophe didn't appear to overly concern the Environment Minister, Bob Carr. He was working hard, of course. He even duchessed reporters by taking them for long walks in National Parks as part of his efforts to breathe life into the swinging cadaver that the government had become. But it wasn't necessary to spend long in his company to realise that his ambition lay elsewhere.

Carr's state seat of Maroubra lay entirely within the boundaries of the federal seat of Kingsford Smith, and he was quietly securing the numbers (and the reputation) to pursue a federal career. He didn't want to rush it and risk everything going bung; he was quite prepared to wait for Lionel Bowen (who was, after all, Deputy Prime Minister) to retire. Then he'd make the switch and, in good time, achieve his real ambition. Becoming Foreign Minister.

It didn't work out like that, of course. On the 19th of March it will be 14 years since the moment when Carr’s hopes and dreams came to an abrupt, shuddering halt. The 1988 election was disastrous for Labor. It was the worst result since Premier Jack Lang was dismissed in the midst of the turmoil of the 1930s. The party realised it needed a new face, a clean skin if it was going to rebuild itself. It turned to Carr.

There are lots of stories about what happened next. How he went into hiding to avoid being drafted into the leadership. How his federal preselection was threatened as a way of encouraging him to make the ‘right’ decision. Normally loquacious, Carr suddenly vanished from the face of the news while he was being persuaded to abandon his federal dreams and do the right thing by the party.

He dealt with the issue upfront the first time he the press as Opposition Leader. He admitted, straight up, that the job wasn't his first choice but insisted he do everything he could to restore Labour to government in the state. It's amazing what a bit of honesty from a politician can do. Carr wasn’t worrying about massaging message, instead he was just telling the truth. He wanted Foreign Affairs, but couldn't have it. So instead, he’d committed himself to returning his party to government.

By 1991, he’d whittled back the coalition majority, forcing it into minority government. By 1995, Carr had taken the party to victory.

There are arguments, of course, over his legacy. There is a tendency, today, to regard this as a time of squandered opportunities. It's perhaps more accurate to note that the deterioration wasn't evident until he departed. Nevertheless, what virtually no one will gainsay is that Carr maintained an interest in much more than the bread-and-butter issues that occupy so much political space in Australia today. He was interested in ideas; the public sphere; the meaning of life. This didn't count for much in a state obsessed with desire for wealth and material gain, but he knew these were the issues that would decide elections and so threw himself into attempting to master them. It always seemed as if his desires were elsewhere. He retired as Premier in 2005.

When in early 2007 I was writing a biography of Kevin Rudd, Carr went out of his way to help. In retrospect his word-picture of an enthusiastic and involved Rudd was accurate and insightful – it's just that an impartial observer would probably now describe Rudd as being obsessive and dismissive. Similar attributes: but with vastly different perceptions accompanying the personal qualities that have been highlighted.

The bear-pit of NSW politics has a reputation for stripping away any vestiges of altruism from participants in the mud-fight. Carr had always seemed a poor fit. Nevertheless, he managed to find a way to slug it out in the cesspool and emerge with his reputation enhanced. Replacing Rudd in Foreign Affairs is unlikely to offer much of a challenge.

More importantly, the pursuit of personal obsessions emanating from the Ministers office are likely to disappear. As is the chaos and lack of coherence that has, despite Secretary Dennis Richardson's best efforts, come to mark our way of engaging with the world.

Despite his broader cultural orientation in the ‘Anglo-sphere’, Carr possesses an intimate understanding and knowledge of our region. His independently successful wife, Helena, was born in Malaysia. At his press conference in Canberra yesterday, Carr emphasised the relationship with Indonesia. Although this is one of our nearest and most powerful neighbours, our cultural and diplomatic links with Jakarta have been allowed to deteriorate drastically. Adding ballast to this relationship is an urgent need. This was ignored by Rudd, who appeared to be too busy posturing on the world stage to trouble himself with the little people with whom we need real intimacy.

This leads to the last point. If you want a relationship, you need to base it on solid foundations. Truth is a priority: honesty is vital.

When he was asked about what had happened over the last week as Gillard continued her ludicrous on-again, off-again stand-up comedy routine (playing on TV as the three-day wonder, “Guess Who’s Coming to Canberra") Carr gave a straight answer. “A lots happened", he said. “It's hard to remember. When the PM made that offer to me late on Thursday morning – I couldn't say no." This wasn't the whole truth. But far more importantly, it wasn't a lie. Carr had taken the trouble to find the right words to explain everything, conveying it humorously and accurately. It's a skill Gillard lacks.

Carr had, earlier on and in relation to another matter, pointed out that, “in the end, it's the leader who cuts through". He was absolutely right. Having a leader you can trust is vital. Gillard's inadequacy is startling.

The goodwill she generated with her win on Monday has disappeared in less than a week.

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