The man who knew too much

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

Diary of a For­eign Min­is­ter By Bob Carr New South, 502pp, $49.99 (HB)

BOB Carr is one of the more at­trac­tive fig­ures in re­cent Aus­tralian pol­i­tics. With his melo­di­ous Syd­ney voice, his pas­sion for cul­ture, his sense of style, he can seem to em­body the de­parted glory of the Keat­ing dis­pen­sa­tion. He was, af­ter all, the boy from the NSW Right of the La­bor Party who rose with Paul and was al­ways des­tined to be for­eign min­is­ter, but some­how was left hold­ing the baby as op­po­si­tion leader, then pre­mier, in NSW. And what a sur­vivor he was. “Of course, they’ll vote him out,” my old friend, John Forbes, that won­der­ful poet, said. “He’s poi­soned the wa­ter sup­ply! What worse can you do?” But they didn’t and, as Carr re­marks, he may have made mis­takes run­ning Syd­ney and its Rum Re­bel­lion en­vi­rons but, un­like Ju­lia Gil­lard, he some­how kept the good news com­ing as well.

Well, in his collection of re­cent, pretty con­sis­tently en­thralling diaries we get the af­ter­glow: here is the record of what it was like to be for­eign min­is­ter, af­ter his re­tire­ment, in what he con­sis­tently per­ceived as “a dis­in­te­grat­ing regime” of a La­bor govern­ment, a Goet­ter­dammerung headed for the flames and the dark­ness.

It’s a rollicking read by a man who com­plains at one point, af­ter Kevin Rudd’s res­ur­rec­tion, that the con­stantly de­mand­ing con­trol freak PM has put him in a po­si­tion where, “with­out a change of shirt, I’m hav­ing to face the catas­tro­phe of wear­ing the same Bul­gari tie two days in a row. What a col­lapse in stan­dards, the end can only be ruin and de­cay. (Can­berra again!) How weary, stale, flat and un­prof­itable seem to me all the uses of this world.”

The echoes of Ham­let’s first so­lil­o­quy are char­ac­ter­is­tic of Carr and so is the un­abashed sense of be­ing put-upon in a world that’s meant to be his oys­ter. There has been plenty of mock­ery of the Carr who tells the reader about how the glee at his ap­point­ment was un­bounded in the Kissinger house­hold (per­haps the place least li­able to be im­pressed by this par­tic­u­lar feat). But Carr also has a line in self-dep­re­ca­tion and an am­bi­tion to­wards self-im­prove­ment that is at least as marked as what he refers to in an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic mo­ment of self-mock­ery as “my leg­endary and hall­mark mod­esty”.

The two as­pects co­ex­ist and make sense to­gether. He’s thrilled to hold forth about the party at Mercedes Bass’s East 66th Street apart­ment in Man­hat­tan and the num­ber of Pi­cas­sos on the wall. But, then, why shouldn’t he? He’s awed by his friend­ship with Henry Kissinger, and when the most fa­mous for­eign af­fairs man since Bis­marck tells him the US can no longer ne­go­ti­ate from a po­si­tion of pre­dom­i­nance or when he smiles at Carr’s ques­tion of what Hil­lary Clin­ton will do next. But Carr has the right to be a stargazer and, be­sides, all Aus­tralians are in­stinc­tively be­cause we’re in­clined to think of the Great World as some­where else.

Carr is quite frank about the fact his In­dian sum­mer stint as for­eign min­is­ter is li­able to pro­vide him with a store of mem­o­ries, which as he poignantly says will last him the rest of his life.

And the man who in­vited Gore Vi­dal to Aus­tralia and es­tab­lished a friend­ship with him knows who he wants to be cap­ti­vated by. He can hardly be alone in think­ing “Any time with Hil­lary is pure cham­pagne”. No won­der jour­nal­ist Laura Tingle says to him, “Ah! Some­one in the place who is en­joy­ing him­self! You just don’t give a f..k what hap­pens!” In an odd way this has its corol­lary in re­ports that David Marr says to him: “You are the only one in the govern­ment who speaks as if he’s in charge.”

Nor, one sus­pects, is this an oc­ca­sion to heed Carr’s own adage that you should never flat­ter a mega­lo­ma­niac be­cause he’ll think you’re telling him the plain truth.

Ev­ery­one knows that Carr got the job of for­eign min­is­ter in the Gil­lard govern­ment, af­ter Rudd first at­tempted to dis­place the woman who had usurped power from him, be­cause she needed some­one glit­ter­ing to make up for the fact she no longer had Kevin. Carr also tells the story of how there was a pos­si­bil­ity of him en­ter­ing federal par­lia­ment in 2007, the year Rudd beat John Howard, but that he thought bet­ter of it be­cause he came to doubt that Rudd would give him the for­eign min­is­ter job, which was the only one he cov­eted.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that when the forces fi­nally group to push out Gil­lard, He­lena Carr is op­posed to Gil­lard go­ing be­cause she re­mem- bers Rudd’s boor­ish­ness in ask­ing her how Bob had of­fended so many people in his days in of­fice. Carr comes to think that Gil­lard has to go: “Last night I watched Rudd in a in­ter­view, strut­ting his stuff for a re­turn to the lead­er­ship ... a con­trast with the strained, scratchy tone of Ju­lia, the voice that the pub­lic has just stopped lis­ten­ing to.” He rings Sam Das­tayri: “Lis­ten, it’s no con­test.” He cuts through.

It’s part of the im­mea­sur­able value of these diaries that we get these highly ar­tic­u­late, on­the-spot re­ac­tions by a man of re­mark­able shrewd­ness, a mas­ter politi­cian to the last days of the Gil­lard govern­ment (and it’s just one of those mad para­doxes of pol­i­tics that she’s the one who gave him the job).

How’s this for an ar­tic­u­lated pes­simism and a swipe at the heir ap­par­ent who is also a twotime as­sas­sin? “We’re be­ing led into a bar­ren de­file where we are go­ing to be ex­ter­mi­nated. Me­dia dwells on Bill Shorten, a de­light for a hot­house ego.” That’s on June 17, 2013. The fol­low­ing day he has this to say of the doomed in­cum­bent: “On Mon­day night, Gil­lard an­nounced curtly she would not af­fected by the me­dia and would stay in the lead­er­ship ... min­is­ters were ... laugh­ing skit­tishly as if ... liv­ing in an al­ter­nate uni­verse. Her self­ish­ness struck me. What’s go­ing on in her head ... the mo­ti­va­tion can only be a deeply in­grained de­tes­ta­tion of Rudd. At once, un­der­stand­able ... and un­wor­thy.”

He adds he “will not be part of any del­e­ga­tion to call on the prime min­is­ter. I’m the el­der states­man, the eques­trian statue af­ter all.”

There’s a brief shin­ing mo­ment when Carr thinks Rudd might pluck vic­tory but it’s char­ac­ter­is­tic of him and his es­sen­tially dra­matic in­ter­est in hu­man be­ings, as well as his own histri­onic per­son­al­ity, that the per­son he high­lights is Tony Ab­bott in pen­sive mood.

“I ... bumped into Tony Ab­bott walk­ing out in ca­sual clothes, his suit over his shoul­der ... he said: ‘Well, you never know where it goes in this busi­ness. The people seem to like Kevin.’ He said he thought Ju­lia was im­pres­sive but the people ob­vi­ously didn’t. He said you never can tell what will hap­pen.”

Carr goes on: “I told Ab­bott if he won that he had to take dras­tic ac­tion on people smug­gling. If you choose to do some­thing with the tri­bunals or go to a ref­er­en­dum to see that courts stop over­turn­ing ex­ec­u­tive govern­ment on sta­tus de­ter­mi­na­tion, I’ll back you ... he said he

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.