Tony Abbott left the make-believe castle of knights and dames to do some serious work in the real world this week, and Bob Carr obligingly stepped in to the fantasy realm to provide the comic relief.
If Abbott indulged himself in a Downunder Downton Abbey of lords and ladies, Carr’s new diary reveals a Don Quixote figure, where the great struggles and heroic deeds take place in his imagination.
Consider Carr’s thoughts as he sat at the table with the leaders of all the world’s major powers at the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg last year. Carr, though only a foreign affairs minister among leaders, was representing Australia because his leader, Kevin Rudd, was immersed in an election campaign.
Carr summarises comments by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Manmohan Singh, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Canada’s Stephen Harper, all speaking about the world economy.
“I look around,” writes Carr. “Twenty leaders here. Parliamentary careerists, technocrats, political buccaneers, clan chieftains, dynastic heirs. As Gore Vidal remarked looking down on the US Senate, ‘I cannot feel humble.’ Interested, curious, of course. Just not humble'.”
The great man’s attention wanders. He thinks about what might be cooking for dinner. He sings in his head a 1939 song, Watercolour of Brazil. It never fails to lift his spirits, we learn.
“Slightly delirious, I indulge a fantasy of the world leaders moving from behind these tables, linking one another in a conga line and led by Putin – with Obama clutching his hips…
“How disrespectful. But there’s little to inspire respect in the contributions I had just heard. Having privatised three big enterprises and fought excessive union claims and struggled with State budgets I didn’t feel that any here – amiable democrats though many of them are – could teach me much.”
Not only is our hero the equal, or perhaps the better, of the leaders around the table, he goes on to diminish their achievements in attaining the leadership of their nations:
“It’s not that hard to get here, to this table. A bit of application, a bit of luck, some patience.”
These lesser leaders, you’d think, were surely lucky to have a man of Carr’s calibre at the table, available to offer his counsel.
He did accurately analyse the central problem of the G-20 last year, under Russian chairmanship but on the cusp of passing to Australia’s leadership this year.
“This G-20’s a summit in need of leadership and a concrete agenda,” Carr reflects, and he was right.
He notes that the communiqué to be issued after the summit has already been agreed; it states that the group is committed to structural reform of their economies to boost growth. “This meeting is a gathering of leaders looking for a task,” Carr writes.
Surely Carr, representing the incoming chair country, was preparing to summon his wisdom and experience to help guide the group purposefully towards their agreed goal of structural reform?
So much for what went on inside Carr’s head. This is what he actually did: Nothing. He said nothing. He did nothing. He went to dinner.
When the summit was over, the leaders preparing to depart, our hero had another chance to demonstrate his mastery. The international media gathered for the press conference that is always held by the incoming chair country, in this case Australia. Here was a chance for Carr to contribute towards the G-20 agenda for the year ahead, with ideas so compelling that the group would be sure to embrace them.
What did Carr say? Nothing. He cancelled the press conference and left St Petersburg without explanation. He was mute. He had nothing to offer. No ideas, no words, not even a conga line. That anticlimax is not in his diary, but that was what happened in the real world.
Yes, the real world, where he was just a discarded provincial leader who was called from retirement to be an unthreatening stopgap for a prime minister in crisis.
Julia Gillard asked Carr to step in as foreign affairs minister to fill the vacancy created by Kevin Rudd when he resigned to challenge Gillard. Carr was plausible as a foreign affairs front man. In truth, he was only ever the acting minister for foreign affairs. And acting was as good as it got. His diary, fittingly, opens with a scene from the theatre, unwittingly setting the tone for Carr’s year-and-a-half of going through the motions, a baritone thespian with a void at his centre.
Anticlimax is central to the Bob Carr story. All the great powers, the people, the institutions and the issues of the day are in place, and Carr enters the scene, but time after time he leaves without achieving anything. It is a non-event.
For instance, he records his first meeting as foreign affairs minister with the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Carr is an insatiable reader of US history. Now he has his chance to contribute in a serious way. How does he make the most of his big chance? In this case, at least, the minister for non-events has a touch of self-awareness, almost a moment of that alien emotion, humility.
“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.”
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 was the tourism aspects of the post that most excited him – going to exotic places, meeting famous people, writing about it in his diary.
He confesses to his diary that he was so thrilled when Henry Kissinger invited him to go camping in the woods of Bohemian Grove that he had to take two tranquillisers to contain his excitement.
In Carr’s mind, like that of the deluded knight Don Quixote, the great struggles are ones that don’t seem very epic to anyone else. Probably the most prominent recurring theme is jet lag, a matter of such commentary you’d think Carr was the first person ever to fly from Sydney to New York and struggle with the effects on his sleep.
And he’s so preoccupied with his diet and exercise regimes that he comes across as a 20-year-old. “My ambition,” he tells us, is to “have a concave abdomen defined by deep-cut obliques.” We’re left wondering, however, what his ambition for Australia might have been.
As one of the characters in Don Quixote remarks: “There is no book so bad...that it does not have something good in it.”
Carr’s diary contains some interesting thoughts. He finds Australia’s devotion to the US too slavish: “I would like to make us a little less craven, to correct the tilt away from China and the too-desperate embrace of the US,” which he says is “symbolised” by the agreement for Australia to host US Marines near Darwin.
He makes the striking point that “armed neutrality” is Australia’s “only alternative to a treaty relationship with the world’s, the region’s, dominant maritime power.”
Is it a realistic alternative? Is it truly the only alternative? What happens if there comes a day when China becomes the region’s dominant maritime power? Does Australia need to reconsider its US alliance? These are big ideas. Carr doesn’t elaborate, however, merely noting that, whatever he might wish, “I haven’t got a mandate” to change the status quo.
Carr made one strong stand on a matter of policy. He challenged Gillard over her decisions to take Israel’s side in its arguments with the Palestinians. He led a Cabinet revolt that forced her to reverse her decision. He does us a favour by drawing attention to this. It’s not because he’s right that Israel is omnipotent. Carr’s successful rebellion, self-evidently, proves that it isn’t.
It’s that Carr’s position is a marker of change. He was co-founder of Labor Friends of Israel; today he is a leader of pro-Palestinian opinion in Labor. His shift reflects the surging Muslim population in Western Sydney. Labor’s NSW Right faction, Carr’s factional home, is now pro-Palestinian because electoral arithmetic demands it.
The best aspect of Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister is that the proceeds go to a charity for children, Interplast.
And the pointlessness of Carr’s tenure, by contrast, shows the purposefulness of Abbott’s trip to the three great capitals of North-East Asia. Abbott, once he finished indulging himself in Downton Abbey fantasy, has shown that a serious leader can achieve serious outcomes for his country.
The worst of the diary? Is it the tantrums, the bitter complaints about having to travel business class rather than first class?
For Labor, it’s the betrayal of a man who was given everything by the party.
A Labor MP, Anthony Byrne, says: “If you ever wanted an example of the narcissism, self-indulgence and immaturity that ran through the Labor party during its six years in government, Bob Carr is it.”
For Julie Bishop, it’s Carr’s betrayal of the confidences of foreign leaders. Asked to justify this, Carr replied: “When there was a Wikileaks revelation and one from Edward Snowden, it revealed to the world because of lax US security, lax US security, candid American comments on Australian politics and personality….I don't think we can be too precious about this.”
The US and Australian governments have called the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, a criminal. The US charges Snowden with treason. Did Bob Carr really mean to equate himself with alleged criminals and traitors?
There is a line in Don Quixote that explains the deluded knight’s state of mind: “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.