Three Bob Carrs jostle for attention in Diary of a Foreign Minister. There’s Bob the individual, a self-described ‘elitist arriviste’ with a range of tics and quirks. He’s got a passion for Pilates, an obsession with organic food, a keen appreciation of Bulgari ties and tailored suits, and a love of Shakespeare, theatre and Russian literature. Then there’s Bob the politician: he despairs from day one in the job at the Government’s flailing and failing efforts to survive, muses on how he would have run the show, rolls Gillard in Labor Caucus on Palestine, and switches his support to Rudd in a last-minute bid to stop Labor’s implosion. Finally, there’s Bob the Foreign Minister who pops pills to fight jet lag, hero-worships Henry Kissinger (‘my favourite world historical figure’), campaigns for the UN Security Council seat, worries about China and is uncomfortable about Australia’s defence alliance with the United States.
Contrary to media reports, Diary of a Foreign Minister is an excellent book, well written, astute in its character portrayals and unsparing in its judgments—including of Carr himself. The book offers an insight into the distractions and driving forces of Australian politics that few others do. For anyone who has spent time in or near Parliament’s ministerial wing, Carr’s book shows exactly what it’s like: messy, catty, ego-driven and emphatically not a seminar on making good public policy.
Many will be drawn to the book for insights into the rivalry between Rudd and Gillard. They won’t be disappointed. Here’s Carr on Rudd:
And then a visitor arrives in my office with the air of a conspiring cardinal on coasters, sniffing out a useful heresy: our beloved former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, purse-lipped, choirboy hair, speaking in that sinister monotone. A chilling monotone.
Carr’s book shows that political events in 2012 and 2013 were shaped as much by the decline of orderly process in government decision-making as they were by personalities. He recalls missing the start of a March 2013 cabinet meeting scheduled to discuss coal-seam gas, then: ‘when I arrived I found that Stephen Conroy’s media changes were the story of the day. They had been dumped on the cabinet meeting—without warning—and adopted.’ ‘This is insane,’ he sorrowfully records.
For readers who want to take a longer-term perspective on how matters got to that point, it helps to read two earlier diaries published by senior Labor figures. Neal Blewett’s 1999 book, A Cabinet Diary: A Personal Record of the First Keating Government 1991–93, is a more analytical study of power by a Minister who’d previously been a political science academic. It presents a picture of a far more orderly government, albeit one that was sliding in the polls and past its best. Mark Latham’s 2005 The Latham Diaries covers the period 1994 to 2005, and shows the damage that years of opposition can do to the coherence and effectiveness of a political party. Read as a trilogy, the three diaries say nothing positive about the trajectory of Australian politics.
One surprise in Carr’s book is his relentless focus on media coverage. Carr quotes Dennis Richardson reportedly saying of him: ‘And I thought Rudd was a media tart!’ Carr’s retort: ‘Yeah Dennis, but the medium is the message, in this job as much as any.’
As Foreign Minister, Carr presents himself as curious but tentative, with an at-times naïve approach to the big strategic issues. He constantly circles around the question of the ‘China choice’ and worries about the enhanced cooperation with the US announced by President Obama in late 2011. Carr asks his officials ‘How does that get read in the Chinese embassy?’ Well, probably like self-interest, Minister. Carr’s pleased that he manoeuvres the government into pulling its punches on cooperation with the US at the 2012 AUSMIN meeting. ‘What I wanted. Mission accomplished’, and then apparently without humour starts his next diary entry ‘After a Chinese fundraiser on Friday night, a quiet weekend.’ There’s an amusing exchange recorded about the 2009 Defence White Paper which is said to be a case of ‘over-hedging’ against the Chinese. Carr says he’s happier with the 2013 White Paper ‘that contains none of the H.G. Wells science fiction about blockading Chinese ports and shooting off missiles.’
The big achievement during Carr’s tenure was to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. Carr enthusiastically pursues the goal—he knows how to campaign. But there’s almost nothing in the diary about what Australia might constructively do with the seat once it’d won it, other than promote a treaty on small arms—a non-solution to a non-problem. Much space is devoted to Carr’s attempts to change an Australian vote in the UN General Assembly on Palestine. This seems as much, if not more, motivated by politics in western Sydney than by politics on the West Bank. His overturning of Gillard in caucus reads like the beginning of her political end. In the final analysis, Carr’s judgement is that ‘all foreign policy is a series of improvisations.’ That’s indeed what it was with him as Foreign Minister.
Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.