Sunday, 22 June 2014


Newsouth, 2014, 502 pages

Review by Phil Shannon
Too often, Bob Carr’s diary sounds like an episode of Grumpy Old Ministers.  An eighteen-month Foreign Affairs Minister in the dying stanzas of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd federal Labor government, the globe-trotting Carr gripes about the “dead prose” of his departmental talking points, the lifeless food and draining jetlag of plane travel, the awfulness of hotels, Canberra (“the City of the Dead”) and contracting viruses from shaking unwashed hands all day on the campaign trail “without a hand sanitiser in the car – damn!”.

Carr is, however, smart, erudite, articulate and cultured.  If stuck next to a politician on a long plane flight (assuming you were upgraded to business class), you could do much worse than getting Bob Carr and some stimulating conversations on literature, opera and Shakespeare (once you got the gym bore off-topic, that is).

His Diary of a Foreign Minister entertains with such reflections - and needs to, to compensate for the boilerplate prose of diplomatic negotiations which draws on the foreign policy orthodoxy of Time and The Economist, and whose minutiae, and prose style, makes for a punishing read.

There is little to salvage, however, from Carr’s politics.  A member of the New South Wales ALP Right and former state Premier, Carr ended his political career as a comfortable member of the international foreign policy club.  The powerful are his milieu, the elite of “glittering careerists” (“nothing wrong with that”) who head the “international architecture” of the UN, G20, IMF, EU and NATO.  He is on first name terms with Hillary (Clinton - “any time with Hillary is pure champagne”, he gushes) and Henry (Kissinger - “my favourite world-historical figure”, he writes, without a word about Kissinger’s leading role in the 1973 US-supported military coup against Salvador Allende’s Socialist government in Chile).

Carr is in his element “speed-dating” UN diplomats to garner votes for Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.  This vote-coaxing motive is specifically on display in Carr’s wooing of the Arab bloc when he advocates not isolating Australia in the UN on Arab-Israeli issues.  We “would blow our support from all those Arab states, and that would cost us the Security Council election”, he argues forcefully with Gillard, who is receptive to the “Israel lobby”, the Jewish, Melbourne-based, Labor-funding business interests that prompts Carr to complain that “we are subcontracting our foreign policy to party donors”.

Although there is an element of rank political calculation in Carr’s Middle East position (he is concerned about losing Labor votes in the Arab-flavoured, western Sydney electorates) there is also genuine conviction in his opposition to an “apartheid” Israeli state expanding its settlements on Palestinian land.

Such a display of principle is, however, rare.  Far more often we find Carr defending Australia’s “national interests” and if this means selling Tibet down the river (don’t antagonise our region’s strongest power, biggest economy and most important trading partner - China), or Sri Lanka’s Tamils or Indonesia’s West Papuans (we need their help on refugees), so be it, according to Carr’s diplomacy  logic – “I’m running a foreign policy for Australia, not for Human Rights Watch or the Tamil National Alliance”, he declares petulantly.

More generally, the world’s peoples don’t get much of a look in in Carr’s diary, except as disaster victims needing aid, certainly not as political actors.  Nor are dissidents like Wikileak’s Julian Assange  suffered willingly - the transparency rebel earns an enmity from Carr that is both personal and political, no doubt because Assange has violated the precious secrecy of the diplomatic cables to which Carr is addicted.

On domestic politics, Carr is uninspiring.  If he was Prime Minister, he would “neutralise” the business sector – no mining taxes or “class war” rhetoric.  He would have proudly been a “Liberal in Labor clothing”.  Although he shares the belated insight with a chastened Rudd that Murdoch and the heads of Rio-Tinto, BHP and the banks “run the country”, the ALP that Carr documents in his diary, from the moribund grass roots branch to its squabbling and timid leading lights, are unlikely to be the ones to do something about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment