Australia’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Bob Carr, is a deeply serious and intellectual politician. He was Premier of Australia’s largest state, New South Wales, for 10 years, making him the state’s longest continuously-serving leader. (Only Henry Parkes in the 19th century beats him non-continuously.) A former journalist, Carr is renowned for his detailed knowledge of US political arcana, having read, it seems, every book on US history, law and politics published since Thomas Harriott’s account of Virginia in 1588. As Premier, he undertook major environmental initiatives, creating acres of new national parks. His key failing was not to tackle Sydney’s transport infrastructure crisis, but perhaps this is a problem too hard for a democratic leader to solve.
As an intellectual, Carr is in a long Australian tradition of serious, heavy-weight Foreign Ministers: John Latham, Doc Evatt (President of the UN General Assembly in 1948-9), Garfield Barwick, Paul Hasluck, Gough Whitlam, Bill Hayden, Gareth Evans, and, of course, most recently, Kevin Rudd. Carr is perhaps the only politician in the country who could make Rudd look intellectually ill-equipped for the job of Foreign Minister. Even the non-intellectuals who have been foreign minister have often been men of principle, humanity and integrity, men who sought to make the world better than it had been – for instance, Stanley Bruce, Percy Spender, Richard Casey, Andrew Peacock, Alexander Downer, and Stephen Smith. Several of Carr’s predecessors went on to higher roles – eg, vice-regality (Casey, Hasluck, Hayden), judicial office (Latham, Evatt, Spender, Barwick), or to work for international organizations (Bruce, Spender, Evans).
How strange then that just two weeks ago, Carr was retired, pursuing his literary and writing interests, and not even a member of any Parliament. His long-ago-stated life’s ambition to be foreign minister looked like a pipe dream. As Gore Vidal wrote of his grandfather, a blind man who became Oklahoma’s first Senator, no obstacle is too great if you mean to prevail.
It is interesting, I think, that the surprise resignation which provided the opportunity for Carr to enter the Senate, and thus to become Foreign Minister, was that of NSW Senator Mark Arbib, who, according to Wikileaks, was a regular visitor to the US Embassy in Canberra. The NSW Right faction, of which both Arbib and Carr are members (as was Paul Keating), is known for its admiration for the USA, and its wonkish interest in US politics. There would be few other foreign ministers who would know, without having to first check, which state primaries the US Secretary of State’s husband won in the 1992 presidential election, for example.
And what will be Carr’s priorities? At his first press conference, he mentioned his admiration for Indonesia’s society and people, contrary to most Australian media reporting, so I expect he will take a close interest in Asia. (His wife was born in Malaysia.) He does not speak Mandarin, as Rudd does, but he shares Rudd’s awareness of the potential negative consequences that a resurgent undemocratic China may have on the region and globally. Carr’s americanophilia will enable him, better than anyone else in Australia perhaps, to steer a policy course in Australia’s own interests, and not slavishly dependent on US views of the world. Some messages only good friends can give, and that makes Carr’s position a very strong one for the Australian-American alliance, and for American self-awareness about its true place in the world.