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Why Bob Carr's book matters

Why Bob Carr's book matters

It was all a trick. A simple scam played on a clueless tabloid media to sell more books. And didn't they oblige! As soon as Bob Carr's Diary of a Foreign Minister hit the shelves, they searched the book for scandal, and found a man apparently addicted to perks and privilege. The Daily Telegraph called him a first-class tosser for his complaints about business class airline food and a lack of complimentary pajamas. AAP said he was suffering 'first world problems'. Andrew Bolt called him trivial and selfish. Jeff Kennett told Melbourne radio station 3AW that the book was a display of 'unbridled vanity'.

The whole thing was ably abetted by the author himself. Carr could easily have left out of his diary the letter from Singapore Airlines apologising for the lack of English subtitles on his inflight Wagner opera. And he didn't need to go on breakfast TV after the launch to demonstrate his favourite pilates exercises. But it was all part of the plan, and if the tabloid hacks had bothered to read more deeply, Carr actually gives his plan away right there in the book:

The notion of the politician as the commentator, even as the entertainer – well, it's part of the job because it gives you more authority when you have to win an argument with colleagues or put some other proposition in the media.

This invites a big question: did Carr's strategy work? Did his vaudeville routine buy him the authority he needed to win policy arguments? Well, if we're talking about the policy debate threaded through the diaries, then the answer is a definitive 'yes'. In fact, Diary of a Foreign Minister may yet prove to be an important book. If we're talking about the policy impact Carr had as a minister, we must be more circumspect.

We'll return to the policy argument in a minute. But let's pause first to acknowledge that the man can really write. A few random examples: the short passage on Mitterand is delightful; Carr invents the phrase 'espionage erotica' to describe the Washington embassy's fascination with the Bradley Manning trial, a term that seems instantly indispensable; and the stuff which inspired claims of snobbery is mostly just self-deprecation (after being called at short notice to a meeting in Canberra, he writes that 'I'm having to face the catastrophe of wearing the same Bulgari tie two days in a row'). Carr is also funny on the loves and hatreds inside the Labor Party. When powerbroker Sam Dastyari begins a phone call to Carr with the phrase 'Mate, mate...', Carr's response is: 'this, of course, the mating call of the New South Wales Right.'

The prose is deft; it is often weighty but still manages to flit across the page. He can do poignancy too. Here Carr describes a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister, during which they touch on Papua New Guinea:

I speculated how my old dad would have responded, being told when he was steering landing craft through the islands of Papua New Guinea that his son, seventy years later, would be talking to a Japanese leader about Papua New Guinea's future. History teases us and jokes with us; the universe is loaded with paradox; and the rate of change sometimes exceeds our imaginations.

What about Carr's now infamous comparisons of business class air travel with slave ships? Read in isolation, such quotes are appalling, as Carr surely knew. But no honest reader of the book can come away with the impression that Carr is some kind of snob who looks down on the commoners (unless those commoners are obese; Carr's contempt for them is rather unattractive). Sure, Carr puffs himself up from time to time, but there's humility in the book too. One of the most moving passages of the diary comes at the close, during his final act as foreign minister at a memorial cemetery in Moscow where half a million who died during the war against the Nazis are buried: 'As I stood before the memorial I thought how trivial my own position, to be part of an Australian government to be voted out of power in an hour, in a peacetime election, with the rest of my life ahead of me. How trivial, compared to this site and what it represents.' Are those the words of a narcissist with his snout in the government trough? [fold]

Yes, the constant references to jetlag are repetitive, and the grumbling about airline and hotel service is self-indulgent, but anyone who has battled sleep deprivation knows how deeply debilitating it can be. Carr's pre-occupation with sleep reflects conscientiousness – he wanted to do the job well.

Anyway, the critics who focused on Carr's alleged snobbery missed the more important subtext. The travel theme which so dominates the book is important not because it reveals someone pre-occupied with perks, but because it almost irresistibly invites the metaphor that Carr was a passenger; a mere tourist rather than a player on the international diplomatic stage. In this regard, Peter Hartcher's pitiless review rightly points to the most damning passage in the diaries, describing Carr's first meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Carr's emphasis):

I was somewhat nervous, aware of my threadbare credentials. About to see a ‘world-historical figure’ with no obvious or specific or urgent mission. That’s what made me anxious. Where was the beef? Nothing, I feared, to render us interesting.

Hartcher's conclusion: 'When he is given the chance, Carr has nothing important to say. Carr’s diary validates Julie Bishop’s critique from opposition. She called him “the ultimate foreign policy tourist”.'

It is indeed shocking that Carr had nothing of substance to say to Clinton on such an important occasion, yet Hartcher's broader judgment fails to acknowledge that Carr only had 18 months in the job in a crippled and self-destructive government. Nor was he entirely without achievements: first and foremost, other than an early stumble in which he publicly floated the idea of sanctioning Papua New Guinea, he made no big mistakes. Any struggling prime minister would have been grateful for that. Carr also shepherded Australia's UN Security Council bid to a successful conclusion; he forced a change of government position on Australia's UN vote on the Palestinian question; and at least if Carr's own account is to be believed, he tempered Defence Minister Stephen Smith's instincts to trumpet our hosting of American B-52 flights, which would have been a red rag to the Chinese. It's a fairly meager list, I grant you, and we can argue about the merits of each item, but we can't say Carr did nothing.

In fact, he might at times have been too activist, or at least not discriminating enough in his activism. The case that many in the Lowy Institute have made — that high profile consular cases distort Australian foreign policy because the minister is drawn in by the media attention — is amply confirmed through Carr's description of the Melinda Taylor case. Taylor, an international lawyer, was detained by Libyan rebels in 2012 for allegedly passing secrets to the imprisoned son of Colonel Qadhafi. Carr hyperbolically calls her case 'the highest priority for Australia' and says his visit to the war-torn country to aid her release 'is the right thing to do and back home it creates a storyline and plants me in it'.

But let's get to the policy nub. There are two major policy themes running through Diary of a Foreign Minister: the Israel-Palestinian dispute and the rise of China. The first gets more pages in the diary and it pre-occupied the serious media immediately after the launch. But the latter is infinitely more consequential for Australia and the world, and the closing passages of the book make it clear that Carr knows it.

Carr's struggle with how Australia should negotiate the US-China question is the golden thread running through the book. At one point in the story, he will remind himself of former ASIO head Paul O'Sullivan's view that in a clash between Chinese and American values, we will always go with the US. But a little while later he will recall words by former DFAT head Dennis Richardson, who says 'our interests are different than a great power's.' Then there's a cabinet meeting during which Smith raises those B-52 flights. Carr was concerned that any announcement of such an initiative would make Australia look like 'a continental US aircraft carrier':

The nature of the cabinet discussion was curious.

None of my colleagues seemed to understand what a strategic decision we were being asked to make here and this surprised me. I was somewhat surprised too that the Prime Minister didn't express a view. It was as if no colleagues had been following the debate initiated by Hugh White and fuelled by three former prime minsters. I was struck by the absolute assurance and ease with which Stephen attempted to lead us into what certainly looked like a big geo-strategic step, although in practice it may have been no more than affirming or embellishing what was signalled in the communique in 2011. But as I saw it, it would really lock us in, irreversibly, as part of the American empire. But then, I may be wrong.

Again and again, Carr returns to the choice facing Australia of whether to muscle up to China by firming the US alliance or to adopt a more measured and independent position that accommodates China's rise. It is a dilemma he never fully resolves, and it is Australia's dilemma writ small. That he describes this dilemma so well makes the diaries essential reading; that he failed to impress the country and an insouciant cabinet about its gravity suggests he fell short as a minister.

But whatever Carr's failures and weaknesses, they are certainly less venal than the media would have us believe. In fact, the media's response to Carr's book exposed something a little ugly about us. In the process of mocking Carr, the Australian media revealed not only its own insularity but also the flipside of what is one of the great treasures of Australian life – our egalitarianism. At our worst moments, it seems we don't just want people to be equal; we want them to be the same. Not for us the love of eccentricity that is so much a part of British identity. Nor do we idolise virtuosos as the Italians do, or iconoclasts the way the Dutch do. The most generous way to describe the character traits admired by Australians is that we love courage and stoicism; a less generous interpretation, encouraged by the early reaction to Carr's book, is that we are a nation of conformists and scolds.

But that way lies mediocrity, which is a dangerous indulgence in the cauldron of modern Asian geopolitics. To manage the US-China dilemma that Carr wrestles with throughout the book, we will need to set our sights higher.

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