The man who knew too much
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