Friday 30 Oct 2020 | 13:36 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Oct 2020 | 13:36 | SYDNEY

Bob Carr has a foreign affair (6)


Graeme Dobell

2 October 2012 16:21

Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister: Part 1part 2part 3part 4 and part 5.

In the never-ending foreign policy struggle to identify means and ends, to balance commitments with power, personal style doesn't always get the attention it should in explaining how things get done – or fall in a heap. Yet in relations between nations, there are only three big levers to pull or wield: cash, guns or cuddles. The style of a foreign minister is vital to the hugs and can even mediate the fiscal or force dimensions. 

The review Stuart Harris did in 1986 of Australia's overseas representation captured these truths with some elegance, while showing that the lament about the lean state of Oz diplomacy has been going for several decades:

Countries still achieve their international objectives by threat, bribe or persuasion. Australia has limited capacity to bribe and less to threaten. With few natural allies, it needs, therefore, wide ranging and skilled overseas representation, proportionally more than large and powerful countries, to build long and short-term coalitions and alliances and to magnify its bargaining strength on particular issues of importance to it. Australia's capacity to do this is thin and becoming thinner.

With that as context, consider the Bob Carr style notes. The judgment offered by Gough Whitlam is that 'Carr is the first journalist to shine as a Labor politician since John Curtin...Carr's career is a triumph of critical intelligence applied to politics.'

Drawing on that critical intelligence, Carr the politician has spent a lot of time thinking about what Carr the journalist took from his time at the ABC and The Bulletin. He enjoys the media in ways alien to many politicians who can never relax when dealing with the enemy. The dual experience as hack and huckster powered one of the sharpest and funniest assaults on the hacks by a serving politician. This is Carr, in his heyday as NSW Premier, putting the boot into the cream of Oz journalism assembled at dinner in 1998 for the annual Walkley Awards, in a speech entitled Good Evening, Reptiles

You all look terrific. The hired gear, the dinner suits. A journalist in a hired dinner suit. It's a terrific thing. But reach into the pocket and there's the best man's speech from Kylie and Brett's wedding...What a profession. You wake up, you feel inadequate, you feel anxious, life is passing you by. You go to the desk, pick a victim. Some innocent person doing his job, just pick a victim. Prolific invectives, abuse, all supported by craftily contrived half-quotes, misrepresentations, cunning little non-attributed views of other people, twisted anecdotes. Soon the victim is sprawling in the mud, gasping for air, a career of service destroyed, never to be revived. What an occupation. I mean, not since the SS was dissolved in 1945 has there been such an opening for insensate cruelty.

When Carr reprinted the speech in a book he commented: 'On this night I was frank. This is always a mistake.' The joke line ('always a mistake') is classic; such drollery gets extra kick when Carr delivers it in his best basso profundo. 

In his ability to sell a line, tell a joke or spin an anecdote, Carr noses ahead of Kevin Rudd, Gareth Evans or Alexander Downer, and is well in front of Stephen Smith and Bill Hayden. The voice is a key bit of the weaponry. Carr was fortunate to work for the ABC (on the AM and PM current affair programs from 1969 to 1971) when the voices allowed on air were slowly becoming less Pom and more Oz. The emphasis on BBC-style elocution still lingered when I joined the ABC in 1975 and was told by my boss that my prospects in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would be limited because I sounded 'too Australian'; the passing of the BBC cringe just got me through.

The broadcasting training is still evident in the way Carr works a script. But his accent and delivery are well within a recognisably Australian range. Alexander Downer, by contrast, worried that his voice style still had lingering elements of his schooling and university in Britain (although it could be merely the Adelaide accent – reference Christopher Pyne for further evidence).

Carr is challenging Andrew Peacock for the title of smoothest Australian foreign minister since Casey (though in the suit-wearing stakes, it is more a contest between Peacock and Stephen Smith). Where Carr could best Peacock is his ability to mention Schleswig-Holstein and sound like he might know what he's talking about. For an extended example, consider the Carr performance at the Lowy Institute. The yarns sparkled; they might not all be new, but feel the gusto. Take it away, Foreign Minister:

I feel intimidated coming to a gathering like this. I think of the story Henry Kissinger's fond of telling – he says he was standing at a reception and a woman came up to him and said, I hear you're a fascinating man. Fascinate me. [Laughter]

George Brown was Foreign Secretary to Harold Wilson and he was very fond of imbibing, and ended up, I think, being retired as Foreign Minister because he was too fond of alcohol. It's said that he was at a reception in Prague on one occasion, probably in the castle, and clutching his drink he swayed across the room to what he thought was a statuesque, very attractive woman, wearing scarlet. And in response to his offer, she said no, I will not dance with you Foreign Secretary. First, I'm not a woman. Second, that is not a waltz they're playing, it is my country's national anthem. And third, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague.

Another Foreign Secretary, Lord Melbourne, when asked to explain the Schleswig-Holstein dispute said he couldn't; he said there are only three people who ever understood it. One of them died, one of them had been committed to a madhouse, and the third was him, and he'd forgotten. I love the cynicism of 19th century politics, especially that captured by Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg – the Russians, fulfilling their role as the gendarme of Europe, had intervened in Austro-Hungary to help the Viennese put down a revolt of the Hungarian nobles, and when asked if he thought Austria would be grateful to the Russians, Prince Felix said we shall astonish the world by our ingratitude...

And a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in Marlborough House in April – I was just enjoying the sunshine in the garden as the meeting was convening – and the Foreign Minister of Tanzania came up and introduced himself to me, Bernard Membe. And quick as a flash he said your country means a lot to us, he said, you built a bridge for us and it's helped farmers get from their village to the fields and increased their productivity enormously. And it's done one other thing as well. It stopped kids being taken by crocodiles...

In mid June, in Istanbul, I was honoured to lend our name to the fourth ministerial meeting of the Non Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative. Now I know when I talk about nuclear disarmament there are people here who are going to think about the story of a man who was told to wait on the walls of a Jewish city in the Holy Land and wait for the coming of the millennium. When asked what he thought of his job he said from some standpoints it could be considered boring, but consider, the work is steady!

Mark this the performance of an Australian foreign minister hugely enjoying his dream job. The technique is that of a hard-headed Labor pol who, as Hamish McDonald wrote, can be 'very pragmatic, even ruthless' in pursuit of Australian and government interests. The style is liberal and the delivery polished, but the policy instincts are tougher.