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Finding Bob Carr Twitter voice


Nick Bryant


14 June 2012 09:16

On the evening of Sunday, 3 June, Helena Carr poached 300 grams of tender kangaroo over a bed of fresh tomatoes, ginger, herbs, fennel, brussels sprouts and herbs. Her husband, Bob, Australia's Foreign Minister, judged it a 'terrific dinner.' It was the perfect complement to the film showing that night on ABC, 'The Eye of the Storm,' Fred Schepisi's mesmerising adaptation of Patrick White's classic novel, which Bob Carr considered 'outstanding.'

Healthy food is an absolute must for a 64 year-old diplomat who has kept up the kind of punishing travel regime that would even have tested his peripatetic predecessor, Kevin Rudd. So, too, is exercise. Carr prepared for a 14-hour grilling before Senate Estimates with 30 minutes of interval training on a stationary bike, then step-ups and crunches. Two hours of pilates, he says, is the 'perfect antidote' to a 'few very crowded days.'

These are the kind of personalising details beloved of weekend supplement feature writers, or fly-on-the-wall film-makers. But they were gleaned not from receiving any kind of special access to the Foreign Minister, but by merely eavesdropping on his Twitter feed.

Bob Carr has long been renowned for his caramel voice and golden pen. But what should we make of his musings on Twitter (@bobjcarr) and what do they say about Australia's fluency in ediplomacy?

The first observation to make is that his Twitter feed, much like his entertaining blog, Thoughtlines, is a stream of Carrian consciousness. One minute we are learning about his trip to Burma, while another he is reminding followers that Game Change, the HBO film on Sarah Palin, is about to start on Foxtel. We hear about the benefits of his job, such as re-immersing himself in Chinese culture and getting to talk about the Tang Dynasty, 'the time China opened to the world and the world opened to China', but also the drawbacks, like learning to cope on four hours sleep and not having time to read the latest volume of Robert Caro's LBJ bio-epic.

Sometimes, he is jokey: 'Just returned from ASIS 60th anniversary party in Canberra (this statement approved by its director). Interesting conversations.'

At other times, the tone is wide-eyed, and arguably a little too what-I-did-do-on-my holidays. 'Last week in Washington,' he wrote, 'I met two former candidates for the presidency: John Kerry and John McCain. Both hugely impressive.' Perhaps there is even something of the Space Cowboy about his tweets: the musings of a politician brought out of retirement, who still cannot quite believe his luck at being given the chance to embark on a final mission that comes with so much adventure.

The voice is usually informal, which some will see as welcome proof that Australia still does not take itself too seriously, but which others might see as a little too frivolous. Rarely does he take to Twitter to issue admonishments or diplomatic warnings. As for his most controversial tweet, it involved a rare foray into domestic politics, when he described the House Speaker Peter Slipper's accuser, James Ashby, as 'more rehearsed than a kabuki actor.'

Often his tweets read not so much as thoughtlines as after-thoughts. Sporadic and somewhat half-hearted, they do not appear to be part of a broader communications strategy acting in harness with his press team at DFAT. 

His Twitter feed, then, is indicative of Australia's more general approach to ediplomacy, which, as Fergus Hanson points out, has been non-committal and amateurish. DFAT has fallen a long way behind the US State Department and British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

So perhaps Bob Carr should look a closer look at the Twitter account of the British Foreign Secretary William Hague. His feed, while occasionally chatty, is nowhere near as whimsical or everyday. As a result, the voice is more weighty and authoritative. Hague has taken to Twitter, for example, to issue the kind of diplomatic broadsides of which Lord Palmerston would have been be proud. Consider this tweet on the day Ratko Mladic appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague: 'Syrian leaders should reflect on the sight of Mladic in the dock today – reach of international justice is long.' Twitter, with its 140 character restriction, can be the enemy of diplomatic nuance. But when it comes to plain-speaking, it can be powerfully direct.

To underscore his e-engagement, Hague has taken part in question and answer sessions on Twitter (one of the few times Carr has done so was to ask for advice on protein shakes). The Yorkshireman has also demonstrated his literacy by issuing 'Friday follows' (recommendations of which accounts to track) for his fellow British diplomats. Then there is his use of hash tag hieroglyphics, so central to the grammar of the medium. Most important of all, his tweets have become a key arm of British diplomacy.

In contrast, Bob Carr comes across as a test cricketer in the twilight of his career who likes the idea of Twenty20 cricket, understands its rising significance and who can play the occasional crowd-pleasing shot, but who feels much more at home in the traditional, five-day format.

Given that ediplomacy instantly eradicates what has long been an obstacle to Australian diplomacy, its distance from the vital centres of global power, does he not need to up his game?

Photo by Flickr user adamknits