By Bernard LaganMarch 2, 2012
Bob Carr has pined to go to Canberra and been denied, and he has been wined and dined to go to Canberra and rebuffed the offers. At last things have aligned for Australia’s new Foreign Minister.
The Labor Party has long looked toward Bob Carr when it seemed imperiled in Canberra. And he always has resisted — until now. He has cited his own sapping doubt that he could lead Labor to victory and become Prime Minister or that he could overcome the clumsiness of a state premier shifting from the New South Wales to the national parliament.
Until last week it was easy to believe that Carr, 10 years the Labor Premier of NSW, could not be less interested in reviving his political career. He had suddenly decided to quit as NSW Premier one sunny winter morning while out walking with his wife, Helena, in 2005, and he has, for most of the time since, led the more gilded life of a senior advisor to Macquarie Bank, wandering the world. Now, 64 years old, he relishes his good health, has recently taken up weightlifting, stopped drinking (he never drank much) and can fly to New York to see an opera — as he'd planned to do recently.
He's remained in the public eye, however, both as a Labor Party elder (he helped write the party's highly self-critical 2010 election review) and as an original thinker who often posted polished essays and crisp reviews on his blog. But politics? To see him strolling through Sydney's Martin Place as he does most days, chatty and unburdened, is to see a man who has moved on.
Or so we thought — for the most part. Carr, of course has not been a disinterested observer of Julia Gillard's performance as Prime Minister. Interested but circumspect. In the throes of last week's leadership turmoil, he responded to this correspondent’s request for his views, saying only: "Sorry but I am not going to join in. Would only make it worse. It's too depressing."
Privately Carr has been critical of the Gillard Government's — and the Prime Minister's — sometimes lame attempts to advocate for its policies, such as the mining tax. Carr always pushed himself and his ministers to get onto morning radio, to set the day's political agenda, to embarrass the Opposition at every chance. And he used storytelling and anecdotes to color his language.
Consider his press conference in Canberra today with Julia Gillard. Both are asked about the travails of breaking ministerial careers in leadership reshuffles, as Gillard was forced to do. But not for Carr the Prime Minister's tired assurances that the dumped remain good men who will continue to serve.
Carr told his own reshuffle story, his own way: “I remember some sort of rage and frustration as Premier at not getting my way with a wayward colleague and actually picking up a porcelain mug, a portrait of Chairman Mao — just to demonstrate my foreign affairs credentials — and flinging it, flinging it at a bookcase. And apparently in (Premier) Barry O'Farrell's office there is a dent, an historic dent in that book case. By those standards today's reshuffle was a mild affair."
You may not agree. But it's language you'd listen to.
We knew, of course, that a quarter of a century ago Bob Carr had not wanted to stay in state politics and wanted — so desperately — to get to Canberra and become a Labor Government Foreign Minister. His old Sydney friend Paul Keating was already the federal treasurer and eyeing off the Prime Minister's office; the passage was clear. But Carr's Canberra ambitions were thwarted because there was really no one else to lead what was left of Labor in NSW when the Wran/Unsworth Labor years were brought to a bloodied end by Nick Greiner's Coalition in 1988. Carr was the despairing, shotgun Opposition leader who recorded his despair at being forced by party chiefs to forget his ambition to be Australia's Foreign Minister and to stay in the drudgery of state politics. He wrote in his diaries: "I spent today like a doomed man, taking phone calls and drafting a statement, still saying to the press I wasn't shifting. I felt a jolt in my stomach about what I was getting myself in for. I will destroy my career in four years. Everything's altered. It's my fate. So, for better or worse, I become leader of the party next week."
He overcame his numbness and poured his energy and political wit into overcoming Labor's electoral decimation in NSW. Within three years the Greiner Government was on its knees and in 1995 Carr was Premier. He'd win another two elections using a clever mix of progressive and populist policies; both national parks and the prison population vastly expanded.
Furtive entreaties to leave state politics and move to Canberra laced Carr's years as NSW Premier. All were delivered at times of despair, nationally, for Labor. Carr, the great keeper of diaries, recorded it all, and over the years he published some.
Kim Beazley, who'd replaced Paul Keating as Labor leader in Canberra, was exhausted and despairing of his ability to unseat John Howard's Coalition Government.
Beazley went to Carr's home in Sydney. Carr recorded their meeting: “On 28 August 1999. Kim Beazley, depressed after a bad week in Federal Parliament wants me to go into Federal politics at the 2001 election. Moreover, he'd make me Foreign Minister. 'You'd only want to do it if it's pretty certain - close to the event - we're going to win. But there are a few of our blokes who would give up their seats for you. I'd get you into Cabinet and give you foreign affairs.' Beyond that, he said, he'd only want to be around a term. 'You should think about taking over the leadership,' he said. I said I'd think about the first, but never, never - not the second."
More pleadings for Carr to take over the leadership of the Labor Party came in the barren years of Simon Crean's leadership in the early 2000s.
John Faulkner, the highly respected NSW Labor Senator, went to Carr's Sydney home on October 6, 2003:
Carr, in 2005, gave your correspondent this from his diaries: "John Faulkner, Labor leader in the Senate, arrives at 9.30am yesterday to sit in our lounge room and offer me the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and a fighting chance of the Prime Ministership. He even offered his own job — that is, becoming leader of the party in the Senate — a base from which I could run for a House seat as leader of the party, installed in the leadership on the eve of the election
“He said Crean is fading fast, Beazley moving to succeed him but that's just a return to the past with its own set of problems. Polling shows the election is winnable although Howard has a war chest surplus of $7 billion.
“… I run through the arguments against; it's too hard. I wouldn't want to let the party down. A transfer too awkward. He hints at the possibility of a party draft, even Crean asking me to take it on. He suggests my reaction is not entirely emphatic. "I am being polite," I say. Maybe part of me wants to entertain it. He says: 'What would it take, sitting here, to persuade you?’ Maybe some definitive qualitative polling, not something rigged by the party... but even then… no."
In the 100-odd years since Federation, only two premiers have gone on to become Australian Prime Ministers. NSW’s George Reid made it in 1904 and Tasmania's Joe Lyons became Prime Minister in 1932. He stayed seven years in the Lodge. Reid lasted only 11 months as Prime Minister.
Some have got close. John Fahey, who succeeded Nick Greiner as Liberal Premier, joined Howard's Government as a Cabinet minister in 1996.
On Friday, March 2, Bob Carr said he has no leadership ambitions in Canberra. But he's obeyed the party before. And that's why it's taken him so long to get what he always wanted.