Is Bob Carr thinking of the Paris option?
Paola Totaro’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday to mark the
ninth anniversary of the election of the Carr Government got a few
people unnecessarily excited. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great piece
– but instead of presaging a Carr departure it was yet another insight
into the prevarications of Hamlet, Prince of Maroubra:

To stay or not to stay, that is the question
Whether tis nobler in the mind
To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous broadcasters,
Etc etc.

This time, the Prince of Maroubra was said to be harbouring regrets at
not offering himself as the leader of the Federal ALP, and almost
champing at the bit to be released from the heavy chains of governing
NSW. Last year I compared Carr to former New York Governor Mario Cuomo
– and the comparison stands. Cuomo famously failed to go for the
Democrat nomination in 1992 because he thought Bush the Elder was
invulnerable; Carr failed to make a grab for Canberra because he
thought Crean had left the ALP too far back in the race.

It galls Carr now to see Latham – his former staffer – well placed to
be Prime Minister. It galls him to have to depend on Latham for any
prospect of public life after being Premier. Carr can’t go anywhere
just yet, because there’s nothing for him to go to. Yes, he’s bored,
yes he’s restive – but he’s always like that. The cure won’t involve
leaving public life – because Carr knows that, in his case, relevance
deprivation would be fatal. He loves the attention that comes from
being a politician who can string a few words together. Witness the
love letter earlier this month from a Canadian columnist in Maclean’s
magazine:

“I have found an erudite, serious, thoughtful, successful politician.
Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn I had to go halfway around
the world to find him.”

Carr would love an ambassadorial posting to Washington or Berlin, and
the attention that he presumes would be lavished him in the salons of
those cities – but that is only within the gift of a Labor Prime
Minister. So Carr bides his time – hoping through gritted teeth that
Latham gets across the line. How Carr must regret letting his
biographer, Marilyn Dodkin, have that infamous diary entry where he
recorded Latham crying after having his pre-selection for the state
seat of Liverpool snatched away in the factional dealings of the day.

And other talk of him joining an international think tank or whatever
fails to appreciate that whatever cachet he has in these circles comes
from being the Premier of NSW. A big fuss has been made about him being
in London this week to sit on a climate change task force. So what?
It’s the combined effort of three think tanks, including the Australia
Institute, in part to put pressure on the US and Australia to sign up
to Kyoto, co-chaired by a former UK Labour Minister famous for failing
to sack a press secretary who sent an email out on 9/11, saying that
this would be a good time to get any bad news out to the media, and the
Republican senator for Maine. I mean talk about high-powered!!

(Incidentally, am I the only one bemused by the fact that Carr has
taken out nearly $1 million worth of advertising to bemoan the
allocation of grants to NSW by the Commonwealth Grants Commission, and
urging the citizens of NSW to badger Canberra before the D-day of 27
March, when Carr won’t even be in the country? At the very time that
NSW is supposed to be panicked at losing $376 million in funding, Carr
will be addressing the Menzies Research Centre in London on “From the
time of Menzies: the things Australia has got right”, a rehash of his
pamphlet, “What Australia Means To Me”. Yep, Bob’s bored with being
Premier – but it’s the only gig he’s got going.)

Carr’s present restiveness comes from seeing his Canberra dreams
evaporate, and from having to suffer the continuing crises in health
and transport, and the botched snatch and grab of the City of Sydney.
It’s not helped by an Opposition that has failed to respect its
time-honoured tradition of turning on and devouring itself after
successive election defeats. For the first time in Carr’s premiership
he faces a strong opposition, making it difficult to fix his attention
solely to what Harold Macmillan famously described as “events, dear
boy, events”. Earlier this year, the Maclean’s columnist, Paul Wells,
asked Carr what pre-occupies him these days:

“He rolled his eyes. ‘Services. Just keeping health care and transit working.””

Very telling. Not his words, but those rolling eyes. Disdain for the
very stuff of state government, but knowing that he must ride out these
crises if his other dreams are to be fulfilled. Maybe one day, but not
yet. For Carr, the frustrations over the years of losing the chance to
be the Member Kingsford Smith, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the
Leader of the Opposition, Prime Minister – too often told “not yet”,
and fearing that one day he’ll be told “too late”.

Boilermaker Bill is holed up at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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