Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 08:36 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 08:36 | SYDNEY

2012 BC (Bob Carr as Foreign Minister)


Graeme Dobell

5 March 2012 15:51

By anointing Bob Carr, the Gillard Government has edged ahead of the Hawke Government as the most pro-American Labor administration since war drove John Curtin to turn to Washington 'without any of any pangs.'

Carr's America-friendly credentials mean he is well placed to go panda hugging with a will. This is the Canberra version of 'only Nixon can go to China': an Australian government with a firm grasp on the alliance can – with judicious dexterity – find a lot of free space to engage with China. Call this the Hawke-to-China or the Howard-to-China technique.

Before doing the crystal-ball gazing, however, consider what Carr has achieved even before being sworn in, both for foreign policy and the budget. Carr delivers one major policy positive compared to Kevin Rudd. Australia now has a Foreign Minister who can actually talk to the Prime Minister. It is a testimony to the strength of Australia's government and diplomatic apparatus that the machinery kept going even as Gillard and Rudd moved from détente to Cold War to bloody battle. 

The machinery was working but the cylinders were starting to splutter. When the Prime Minister decides that not talking to her Foreign Minister is the cleanest and easiest way to make a major change in policy towards India, then foreign policy is developing strange quirks. Carr resolves that problem. The appointment is that of a leader who seems to have decided that she won't die wondering: roll the dice and give it a go with whatever time is left.

Bob Carr is one of the few people in the Labor Party who offers the combination of intellect and political guts that make Rudd such a compelling figure. Where Carr beats Rudd is in his deep devotion to the customs and rituals of the Labor Party. Gillard and Carr have the common understandings of two devoted tribal followers. He is of the Right, she is of the Left, but it is the same tribe. That understanding is one reason Gillard was twice able to roll over the top of Rudd in tribal council (caucus). 

As Foreign Minister, Carr offers Gillard new energy yet plenty of experience – plus a bit of fun and flair. Carr has the love of words and ideas of a politician who can spar with Keating while also debating Civil War history with Beazley. And Carr offers one other immediate benefit compared to Rudd: the new man should make it much easier for the Treasurer to balance the budget by dipping into the growing river of cash flowing to foreign aid.

Rudd is deeply committed to achieving the promise that by 2015 Australia will spend 0.5% of Gross National Income on aid. This financial year, Australia is spending $4.8 billion on development assistance. The forward estimates declare that by 2014-15, this will reach about $9 billion, to achieve the 0.5% target.

Above the aid target, however, sits the central political promise from Gillard and Swan: the May budget for 2012-13 will return the budget to surplus. Carr arrives in Cabinet just at the moment when every sinew of government is straining to achieve that surplus figure. The new Foreign Minister will not fight Swan over the aid forward estimates with the same intensity Rudd would have brought to the fight.

What big ideas will animate Carr in Canberra? The Book of Job's plea – Oh, that mine adversary had written a book – has found its 21st century expression in the blog. The man that Mark Latham dubbed 'Bob the Blogger' has given much food for thought in his Thoughtlines. See Sam's excellent roundup of what the Carr blog reveals about his foreign policy views. 

The piece that will be getting most attention today is this from December on the Obama visit to Oz and the need for Canberra to do some fine tuning on where it stands in relations with the US and China:

...there is no evidence China has aggressive, expansionist or interventionist instincts. The American reaction to China, however, displays all the neuroses of the world’s most insecure empire, always imagining its enemies at work to bring it down. I recall an Australian-American Leadership Dialogue around 1999 where Rich Armitage, later to become a Deputy Secretary of State, was talking about war over the Taiwan Straits and demanding to know whether Australia would take a hand. “Are these people nuts?” was the whispered response of all the Australians. [Malcolm] Turnbull warned about Australian governments becoming “doe-eyed” with Barack Obama and getting distracted from the need “to maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing” which is, he added, “after all, our most important trading partner.” It is noteworthy, surely, that a Liberal has been able to detect this. When did we decide to favour America’s most mistaken instincts? Do we talk down their paranoia and sabre-rattling when our leaders talk? Do we have as our goal a peaceful accommodation between the aspirations of China and the national interests of the US? Why did we allow the announcement about Marines rotating in the Northern Territory to be made in association with the US President’s strange speech attacking China?

Excellent questions for the new Foreign Minister to ponder. At his first presser on Friday, Carr underlined the 'sanctity' of the US alliance. And the US pivot is producing an unusual convergence of US-Australian military thinking. At the same time – as decreed by the law of unintended consequences – Australia is hastening towards an Asian free trade pact that will exclude China. This is an alignment of alliance and trade policies that sends some diabolical signals.

Carr is coming to a Canberra that is devoting a lot of time to thinking about the Asian century and pondering how much of this will be the China century. The new Foreign Minister could usefully have a chat with John Howard about his experience of suffering Chinese burns and bruises, and how to reassure the US while engaging with China. The closer Howard got to George W, the more room he seemed to have to massage and manage China.

My ears always pricked over the later years of Howard's reign when he talked about China's 'prerogatives'. Bob Carr confronts the same conundrum: to serve Australia's abiding interest in US power while finding accommodations to China's growing prerogatives. And if the Gillard Government crashes and burns at the election next year, Bob Carr can play out another dream role in his new Senate seat. He can try on the mantle of Labor's version of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. With Carr, there's always an American allusion.