Books Australia

‘Qui, moi?’

24 April 2014

1:00 PM

24 April 2014

1:00 PM

In 2008, Bob Carr was on an ABC panel show, pontificating about the wisdom of decisions of the US Supreme Court on racial issues. Another panellist, Christopher Hitchens, a guest from the US, interjected to say: ‘Like Dred Scott?’ Carr replied: ‘Yes, a great decision.’

Dred Scott was the 1857 decision which provided the legal underpinning of slavery. That is, the person who would become Australia’s Foreign Minister, representing the country to people like Barack Obama, had just said that the enslavement of black people was a fine idea.

The moral of the incident is that if there is anything worse than a know-it-all, it is one who does not, in fact, know it all. In short, Bob Carr is much less smart than he thinks he is — although no one could be that smart.

Which brings us to this doorstop of a book. Political memoirs, especially in diary form, are always self-serving but at least there is usually an aspect of what the writer did to serve their country. Not so here. Foreign affairs is an intrinsically interesting field, and it would be nice if Carr actually talked about it in depth. Unfortunately, his emphasis is on what he did with his daily time. Carr spends much of the book telling us about what he had for breakfast, what pills he took, his protein intake, the exercises he did, how much sleep he got and so on. At length. At great length.

But of course the lot of a foreign minister is not always easy. The briefs from the department, Carr notes, were insufficiently entertaining. He had to read a lot of things that he did not particularly want to read, and to speak to people who he did not find very interesting. Then there was the air travel in business class, where pyjamas were not always provided. Carr seems to have an odd obsession with steel-cut oats (whatever they are) and got peeved if they were not available.

In fact, it is difficult to understand what Carr actually did as a minister. Yes, he spoke to a lot of people and went to a lot of meetings, with varying degrees of reluctance. That appears to have been about it. Maybe that is what foreign ministers do. We might have to wait for a book from Julie Bishop for comparison but Carr did not seem to achieve, well, anything. True, on his watch Australia was elected as a temporary member of the UN Security Council but the greater end was unclear. Carr seemed to see the point of the exercise as meaning that he could go to a better class of cocktail party. The whole thing cost over $25 million but Carr doesn’t appear to care. It was, after all, someone else’s money.

He lists one of his achievements as reorienting Australian foreign policy towards the ASEAN countries. It seems like an odd thing to say, since Australia has been engaged with  ASEAN for as long as the organisation has existed, on everything from security to trade. Maybe Carr hadn’t heard of  ASEAN before. Maybe the DFAT brief on it was not entertaining enough for him to bother with.

The other thing Carr seemed to do was collect business cards. He has a decided liking for name-dropping. Kissinger is a favourite, and Carr reproduces some messages from him, apparently to confirm the connection. He likes to refer to the Indonesian foreign minister by his first name, presumably to show how deeply the relationship between the countries advanced on his watch. This is not so much representing Australia’s interests as a sort of celebrity tourism. When Carr does actually have to do some work — there are a few things that cannot be delegated to underlings — he is markedly resentful, as if it is taking time that could be spent attending a concert or looking at cultural monuments.

That is the core issue, in the end: that Carr thought the role should be an enjoyable sinecure rather than a job. He gives the impression that he deserved to be Foreign Minister because he was, well, Bob Carr.

Along the way, he provides some musings about the world and Australia’s role in it. He looks at the quagmire of the Middle East and wonders how it might be used to win votes in Australia, and he sees the US-China relationship as the crucial pivot in a multipolar world. But none of this is particularly deep or new. It is the sort of thing you get in a longish article in a weekend newspaper.

Inevitably, Carr was drawn into the Gillard/Rudd contest. His snide comments on the disintegration of Gillard’s government are amusing, if you like that sort of thing, but add very little to what is already known. Carr eventually shifted his support to Rudd, but he has nothing to say on the final vote.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as merely silly, but in fact it does tell us much. It reveals how deep the culture of self-indulgence and entitlement now runs in the ALP, almost to the point of parody. And Carr is supposed to be the clever one, the successful one, the erudite one. If he is held up as a standard, the party is in more trouble than anyone had previously thought.

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