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Pyjamas, porridge and bursts of song: Carr another star for NSW last night

Bob Carr is not the sporty type — having scheduled his performance of his Diary of a Foreign Minister on the same night as the State of Origin. But it was a rousing, amusing, and dare we say inspiring night all the same.

The second State of Origin was a fitting night for a reading from Bob Carr, the former NSW premier and foreign minister, who freely admits he was born without a sporting gene. Obviously Carr had no idea what competition he was up against — only the most important rugby league game in world history. Carr joked sheepishly he “knew once I was told”.

It didn’t matter, because 70-odd listeners at inner-Sydney Gleebooks shared his disinterest in footy and were treated to a well-rehearsed performance (for that is what it was) of his Diary of A Foreign Minister.

An immaculately suited Carr (the tie was Bulgari, for the record), former Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis, comedian Jonathan Biggins and actor-director-composer Terry Clarke kept it lively, passing to each other with precision, reading sentences from the Diary by turn, occasionally breaking out in celebratory renditions of the old Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer number - “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate-the-Positive”.

 

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Only Carr, who has the richest voice in Australian politics, didn’t sing. As he told Crikey at the interval: “I’ve get a lousy voice … a speaking voice does not translate into singing.”

Full of set moves, the performance had all the Diary’s hits: the organic steel-cut oats, the endless Normisons, the lack of pyjamas in business class.

Ellis injected his special weariness into every passage, especially relishing his role as Henry Kissinger — Carr’s avowed “favorite world-historical figure”. Biggins did a great Kevin Rudd — prim, prosaic, complete with hand gestures. No love there.

It was fun to hear the indignation in Carr’s voice as he bemoaned that after 10-and-a-half years running his own government, jousting with finance minister Penny Wong round the cabinet table, here he found himself “cast as a mendicant minister”.

A fan of the Diary, which have been trivialised too much, I felt moved to applaud my favourite passage, too long to republish here: the nostalgic moment when Carr recalls the 15-year-old kid from Matraville, walking to his first monthly Labor Party meeting, circa 1963, sitting on little chairs with the crusty old blue-collar workers at the Malabar South primary school:

Today the jobs these men had in breweries, power plants,  print works and factories have all been globalised out of existence, and the grand old party is wobbling on its feet. But that old party and those workers — all of them, I think, passed on — elevated me into public life to do things on their behalf: right now to represent our country in this imperial capital. And, as Mrs Loman said Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, ‘Attention must be paid’.”

And as the Diary records, Carr acquitted himself well in his 18 months as foreign minister. Getting us onto the United Nations Security Council. Deftly rebalancing our relationships with the United States and China. Rolling prime minister Julia Gillard to ensure Australia did not breach faith with the rest of the international community and vote against recognition of Palestine.

Which leaves my one gnawing criticism of the Diary: given Carr’s biting reflections on the state of the ALP, why is there almost nothing on the revelations of foul play that were pouring out of the Independent Commission Against Corruption during Carr’s term as foreign minister? There are is a passing reference to the stench from ICAC and this entry on February 6, 2013:

The Obeid scandal being examined by ICAC is on the front pages everyday. I hate to use this cliche, but an existential crisis erodes the very notion of a Labor Party.”

That’s it. I wanted more. It was as though Carr did or does not appreciate the gravity of ICAC, the likely permanent damage to Labor’s standing in the community done by the infamous cohort of politicians he worked with for years at Macquarie Street, or the extent to which his own reputation would be tarnished by association.

In fact we know he doesn’t, because as Alex Mitchell has written, Carr told Fran Kelly he was “not remotely” worried that his entire premiership would be tarnished by the revelations about actions of Eddie Obeid, whom he’d helped into the ministry. “These things being examined in ICAC occurred in 2008,” Carr told Kelly. “I was gone as premier in 2005, and I expelled Mr Obeid from my cabinet  in 2003. So these events speak for themselves.”

Carr told Crikey last night he had not been silent on ICAC — he gave a lengthy interview to Four Corners last year, for example — and said the Diary was not the place or time for more commentary.

There’ll be more opportunities to do that when the other ICAC reports are out. Even when some of the prosecutions occur. I haven’t shied away from talking about it, but this is about my time as foreign minister, not reflecting on state politics.”

Carr says ICAC is a factor in the diminution of the party, but “so too is globalisation of the economy, the loss of that old working-class space. The branch I joined in Malabar is not diminished because of the ICAC revelations. It’s diminished because of the loss of industrial jobs in the Randwick/Botany zone.”

But like a member of the judiciary, I would have liked to see some contrition — shock, horror, or remorse — even just a page, somewhere in the book. It is impossible to believe the corrupt culture that enveloped Labor took root only after Carr quit state politics.

For the rest, Carr’s good health, humour, engagement and informed optimism are inspiring — too rare! — and vindicated by the solid takings at the gate last night. Sales, Carr reports, are going very well. Unhappily, I’d left my copy at home, so left without an autograph — game to watch — as the readings reconvened. Everyone else stayed.

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