Bob Carr’s diary: notes in a gilded cage

From day one in his coveted new job, Bob Carr gives every im­pression of occupying a (very well-travelled) version of what scholars of the Japanese mon­archy have called a gilded cage.
Being a member of the foreign ministers’ club is a choice post for any politician, more so for one who had worn the ambition for so long and so publicly through the long slog of running a state in a country so distant from the aura of the Washington Monument which, we are quickly reminded, he first visited in 1972 on a United States government junket.
“Forty years on, I’m in the city – the art ­collections and historic sites and surrounding battlefields I now know like the back of my hand – as foreign minister, this time in the Willard Hotel, where in 1861 Lincoln checked in, described so brilliantly in the ­opening ­chapter of Vidal’s Lincoln," Australia’s 37th foreign minister noted in his diary on April 20, 2012.
We are not informed whether Kim Beazley , a man with much more international min­isterial experience than Carr, but now merely his man on the ground in Washington as ambassador, found himself in a position of being at Carr’s “disposal".
AFR Illustration: David Rowe
Proffering himself in such a manner was the one concession to deference in a stern 3½-page email Beazley sent Carr a few days before the visit to set him straight on dealing with the US.
Carr had apparently lapsed from four ­decades of Washingtonian Kool-Aid consumption to describe as “sensible" a recent opinion piece by former Australian army chief Peter Leahy cautioning about broader military ties with the US. “Can I make a few points early?" Beazley asks his boss of only five weeks in an email which welcomes him to the “wilderness of lightning rods".
“I find Peter Leahy’s article infuriating. This is personal."


Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister is a rarity in Australian politics, slotting in alongside the jottings of Mark Latham and Neal Blewett . Readers will find neither the take-no-prisoners character assessments of Latham (no complaints from foreign embassies should be required) nor the scope of Blewett (a political scientist by training), if only because Carr has a scant 18 months to work with.
But it is those 18 months that are the defining theme of the book. The conversation with NSW Labor Party secretary Sam Dastyari ­giving Carr Kevin Rudd ’s old job on behalf of prime minister Julia Gillard had been blunt about the likely life span of the government he was joining.
“Very hard to deny oneself this. I got on board," Carr writes in the preface, presumably after the event but still in the introspective, mostly daily narrative style of a man ­wondering what the hell he should do with so little time in his dream job.
As he puts it at the very beginning, almost with a sense of fatalism: “In total it will be 18 months to test what propositions hold, what fall by the wayside. And to decide whether it was history."
In reality, the cage was locked from the beginning. There was no time to plan a ­massive Kissinger-style realist realignment of foreign relations but, nevertheless, enough spare time for a frolic in the Californian forest at the ironically named Bohemian Grove with US Republican grandees at Henry’s invitation. The former US secretary of state emerges as a constant reference point in personal ­meetings and letters as Carr wrangles with how his achievements will sit alongside those of the grandmaster.
Constrained or not, Carr is preoccupied from the beginning with Australia’s contin­uing Nixonian challenge of how to respond to the rise of China and seems to see this as an area where historians will gratefully turn to his book for a contemporaneous account of a ­foreign policy dilemma. And it is a fascinating account of how a man with a sense of history, and an almost cheesy passion for America, wrestles with the rise of the new superpower.
But in the end, he only finds himself ­diligently reading his talking points in sundry meetings with sundry Chinese leaders in sundry cities until he can finally let Gillard savour the success of winning an annual dialogue with the Chinese leadership. “She deserves to bask. She enjoys so few wins," Carr wrote on April 10, 2013, while admitting he simply didn’t know why the Chinese had been so accommodating to a then fading Australian government.


Despite this constant tussle with the China question, Carr remarkably reveals at the very end that he never had a chance to discuss with Rudd the rationale behind the strongly anti-China tone of the 2009 defence white paper overseen by Rudd as prime minister and from which Carr feels he spent so much of his short time in power recovering.
The path to ministerial greatness was also locked by a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that seems to have regarded Carr as a slightly unpredictable gadfly, who was ­sometimes ­cavalier with the briefing notes and who unsettled policy wonks with his thinly ­disguised view that a bit of good old NSW-style hucksterism could always juice up the story for a popular audience.
This is abundantly clear in Washington in April 2012, when Carr writes of having 10 departmental people around the table at the Willard, but: “I was getting panicky. The bland briefing notes were the problem. BORING!" But it was most bluntly driven home on ­January 17, 2013, when – as Carr was to record: “Sometimes – only sometimes – my department springs to life in ways that reveal its ­hidden personality."
The minister had been generating some headlines with comments about the need for Australia to align its foreign policy closer to that of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, a theme he is still pursuing in his ­post-politics academic career. In this case, he had lent some sympathy to a pro-ASEAN speech by former prime ministerPaul Keating , only to prompt an unrequested ministerial ­submission from the department asking him to clarify that “Australia has no plans to seek or even consider membership [of ASEAN] even in the long term".
That submission is now buried in the archives with Carr’s blunt notation: “My ­comments were in response to remarks of a former prime minister – who I choose to treat with courtesy – and didn’t reflect any desire to shift Australia’s position. No need to pursue or clarify."
What will the department make of Carr’s diary entry on the previous November 3, where he reflects with satisfaction on an ­interview with this newspaper backing policy alignment with ASEAN? “Merely saying it in The Australian Financial Reviewmeans that becomes ­Australia’s stance. That’s Australian policy. The medium is the message."


“Outrageous. Doable," he tells himself on June 16. High over the Med­iterranean on June 18, he notes: “How could I not give it a try? At least go through the motions? It’s the right thing to do and back home it creates a storyline and plants me in it.
“In that idle, self-indulgent holiday last Christmas . . . I could never have believed I’d have another cycle of public life given me . . . Then – in a puff of smoke – in August next year it’ll all be gone."
Enough of the high life. What makes Carr’s book beguiling is its honesty about life’s limit­ations. In the end, he concludes, despite all the early expectations in Washington, a visit to Myanmar (Carr changed the official Aust­ralian nomenclature from Burma) to Aus­tralian-funded schools was “one of the best days of my life". Likewise, he describes a trip to the Solomon Islands as the “single most interesting visit I have done".
Carr’s focus on how Australia can do more and learn more in south-east Asia than in the corridors of power in Washington or Geneva is a valuable, if personally humbling, insight from this book by a man with erstwhile grander ambitions. It is one that other politicians should pay attention to.
This long journey around the world,­ only to be brought down to earth, seeking small but useful achievements closer to home, is really brought into focus by a telling chronological omission.
The diary starts on the way to the United Nations in New York on April 9, 2012. But this is more than two weeks after Carr had been sworn in and had already been to New Zealand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore, in what was spun at the time to this writer by an effervescent new foreign minister as an important symbolic visit to often overlooked small neighbours. Indeed, Carr promised enthusiastically that he would give Singapore more space in the Gillard government’s Asian Century white paper.


New York, Brussels, Washington: the portentous datelines of April 2012 recur time and time again, rivalled only by observations about poor hotel food, recovery Pilates at home in Maroubra and ham-fisted Labor ­colleagues bringing a journeyman foreign ministership to an untimely end. And they – not Singapore – seemed to be the right place at the right time to inspire a diary.
How ironic that it all finishes on election day in 2013, without staff, on a train in Russia where Carr had been caretaker representative at the Group of 20 meeting. Earlier, far from being an awkward political seat-warmer ­sitting amid the world’s most powerful con­tinuing leaders, Carr spends part of the meeting reflecting on his career as a boy from a fibro house who went on to run NSW. “I didn’t feel that here – amiable democrats though many of them are – could teach me much."
But on the train the vista narrows. “The 18 months are up, ending as it was always going to end, although I would never have guessed in St Petersburg. Had this been history? Seeing (Myanmar) President Thein Sein’s face lighten when I told him Australia was lifting, not just suspending, sanctions.
“I had stepped into this narrative, though only briefly. It was history. But speeding past, and already fading like an illusion."