Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:13 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:13 | SYDNEY

Bob Carr has a foreign affair (4)


Graeme Dobell

20 September 2012 09:39

Part 1part 2 and part 3 of Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister.

Bob Carr brought to Foreign Affairs a vast administrative experience, a lifetime in politics, and a great intellectual store of history lessons drawn from a prodigious appetite for books. What he didn't have was much experience of how to do the job. Carr had deep interest in the world of foreign affairs but he was not of that world.

Stepping fresh on the field, Carr has drawn widely on the collective foreign policy memory of Australia's political elite. As a man with ample confidence in his own ability, Carr has sought guidance to crystalise his instincts and get hints about the mirages and minefields. He reached to the other side of politics to John Howard and Malcolm Fraser, and has had a couple of discussions with Australia's longest serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer. 

Carr talks regularly to Gareth Evans, and he has never had to ask too hard to hear the views of Paul Keating. The normal constant contact with Australia's ambassador in Washington is taken to another level by the fact that the holder of that post is Kim Beazley. Carr's obsession with the US is nearly matched by Beazley. And Beazley can out-obsess Carr when it comes to the alliance. 

Along with all these, Carr has been talking to Kevin Rudd. The view seems to be that the too-and-fro between Carr and Rudd has been productive, even amiable. Carr is about the only person in this Cabinet without a complicated Rudd history, so the previous minister and the new occupant can talk policy, even people, without too many under-currents. 

Carr has changed the tone inside Foreign Affairs. Rudd knew exactly what he wanted from DFAT and drove it hard. Carr is nearly as ambitious as his predecessor but has obviously been far more open to the DFAT perspective. 

Unlike Rudd, Carr started with more sense of what he didn't know. Six months in, the blizzard of briefing papers has abated and just as Carr rode over DFAT's preferences for his personal staff, the new foreign minister has started to demonstrate his ability to push the department as well as lean on it. 

Carr's reaction to Libya's arrest of the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor was a case of the minister shrugging aside the usual cautions offered by DFAT and following his instincts. The Carr journey to Tripoli was truly a flight into the unknown carrying all sorts of risks. It was the action of a man determined to embrace the ride, however long it lasts, and not to miss anything by worrying too much about the potential miseries. When Taylor was quickly released, Carr got some credit for being willing to risk his own credit.

Carr's first achievement was what he solved or made possible merely by taking the job. The new foreign minister immediately changed the way foreign policy had been operating and was reported by the media, and Carr is able to pursue what is always a foreign minister's most important diplomatic relationship, that with the prime minister. For the first time in a while, the foreign minister has a 'normal' relationship both with his department and the prime minister.

The life of an Australian foreign minister is lived on the road and Carr has been flying hard and far. It has not taken him long to get to the stage all foreign ministers quickly reach of asking about the priority and necessity of some of the travel schedule. Senator Bob, though, is proving again the political utility of having a foreign minister who sits in the upper house. He does not have to worry about holding his seat the way they do in the House of Representatives. John Howard demonstrated in 2007 that even prime ministers can lose a lower house seat, while Alexander Downer sailed towards disaster in the 1998 election when a Democrat candidate went within 1.7% of stripping the foreign minister of his safe seat.

As for the biggest question facing Australia this decade —the balance between the alliance with the US and the economic dependence on China — Carr has the opportunity to step beyond his American affections to embrace China. As a retired premier and private citizen, Bob Carr blogged on the eve of the Obama visit last November, saying Australia did not have to go all the way with the US of A: 'Tell the president politely we are not signing up to a mindless anti-China campaign. The alliance does not require it'. And then there was this from Bob the Blogger in December:

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? Who makes these foreign policy decisions and what discussion is there?

Back as a public man, Bob Carr knows precisely the answer to that last question, and in much more diplomatic tones he has been treading gently through that agenda. From those starting points, Carr in office has sounded positively John-Howard-like in his repeated insistence that Australia does not have to choose between the US and China.
 In the South Pacific, Carr's status as the non-Rudd means he carries less baggage in dealing with Fiji. With none of the bruises from past clashes with Suva's supremo, Carr can focus on the best means to edge the Pacific Islands Forum towards an accommodation with the military regime and help as much as possible to get an open election in 2014.
If Australia wins a US Security Council seat in next month's vote, a vast ministerial agenda for 2013-14 will land in the Carr in-tray. He is as ready as he will ever be.

Photo courtesy of DFAT.