“Mark Latham as leader … well that will be an interesting nine months,” quoth then-NSW premier Bob Carr at the time of the Green Valley Giant’s elevation by an unenthusiastic caucus to the top job. Carr’s timing was a little short, but it was an otherwise accurate forecast of that wild ride. What made Bob so sure in his assessment? Was it self-awareness?

His recent intervention in the continuing travails of Papua New Guinea might be a case in point. Speaking to Graham Richardson on the radio — an occasion which for some reason makes me think of Unity Mitford calling on Hitler — Carr noted that if the current chaos in our northern neighbour continued, there might be a need to call in sanctions from the rest of the world.

Sanctions? Was PNG acquiring WMDs and threatening to extend Greater Papua to the Cooktown city limits? Oppressing any of its 850 minorities? No, it was having an ongoing constitutional crisis, with a stand-off between prime ministerial claimants, governors-general. Most recently a mutiny by a Colonel — appointed as defence force chief by former prime minister (and current claimant) Michael Somare — saw the existing defence force chief briefly arrested.

In other words, a complicated, internal ongoing dispute arising from various forces — the pique of a senescent “father of he nation”, the difficulties of separated powers in a young state — and one which by no stretch of the term can be called a “nation-state”; the effects of clientalism and corruption in a resources-rich, production-poor country, and the difficult fit between a society where clan remains formative of identity and solidarity, and modern liberal institutions which developed in the West only after such clan solidarities had been dissolved into the affiliations of class, region and religion.

In other words the country is going through a long and difficult process, essentially creating a new social form. England was engaged in near continual civil war for a century and a half in making this transition. PNG is managing this process with considerably less bloodshed and chaos. Even if its social problems remain severe, it has had a lot less torrid time of it than many other places.

But to paraphrase St Behan, there is no situation so bad that the appointment of a new foreign minister cannot make it worse. Perhaps Carr’s muttering about sanctions was some Dada attempt to unite the country afresh — nothing like the former colonial master barking instructions over late-night radio — but i doubt it. Were it any government other than the Gillard outfit, you would wonder if it were not a well-worked out plan to fire a shot across the PNG’s bows, but hey it’s the Gillard government. There was more collective purpose in The Vines.

No, this one is a Bob Carr original, and it suggests Carr is at the point where he can make a decision — he can either be a judicious and effective foreign minister, or he can be a disaster, using the post to project all his obsession, neuroses and petty political conflicts onto a world stage, to the country’s detriment. For the seasoned observer, the most important thing you have to know about Bob Carr is that it’s never about what it is. Like many on the Right, Carr is defined and consumed by a war aginst the Left — inside the ALP, outside it, on a world stage. For the Right — inside the ALP and outside it — New Guinea’s indepedence is a sore point.

They will always believe that we have stayed too hands-off in the country, that the manner in which independence was granted was a mistake, and that we should continue to project power in the whole region. Carr’s intervention has certainly riled PNG, but it is also designed to stake out an attitude to national sovereignty, especially in our own backyard — and to emaphasise that the neoconservative idea of “exceptional power” remains, carried on from the Iraq years. Thus, we support the US in its projection of exceptional power in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, and we project it ourselves in PNG — or Fiji, the Solomons, etc.

We did this for decades in the Pacific after WW2, when in a bizarre post-war episode we tried to stake out a Pacific empire of our own, the whole process so ad-hoc that by the end of 1945 British Borneo was being run by a man who, at the start of the war, was a president of Sydney University’s students union. The colonial authority that was established would later form the core of the Australian Right, grouped around Quadrant — their failed bid to have a greater Australian empire stretch all the way to Malaysia was the earliest sally in that war.

The Australian Left identified itself with the independence movements of these various nations, while the Right — as the US Right in Latin America — saw the place as a fiefdom and hinterland. PNG became a test-case of sorts, and a battleground filling with Communist organisers (including a young Helen Hughes, now a firebreathing right-wing economist, then a fire-breathing Leninist), who rightly saw the place as a weak link in Australia’s faltering attempts to play with the big boys.

So for Carr, PNG is the perfect storm. It’s a chance to start a fight about national sovereignty, modernity and cultural relativism (the PNG constitution explicitly commits the nation to protecting the viability of traditional ways of life among the hundreds of separate Highland tribes), the projection of interest-politics, the “political correctness” of anti-imperialism, etc. Since no-one’s home in the Gillard government, he may well have license to run amok.

The last thing PNG needs is chest-beating assertion of strength from the proverbial 97-pound weakling — Carr could help tip a difficult situation into violent chaos, extending his simplistic political fantasy (for which, see his blog) over a complex world. He would do well to remember — for the sake of PNG and Australia and sundry nations to come — that the foreign minister is the country’s senior diplomat, for whom the greatest virtue is prudentia. Otherwise it will be a very interesting nine months indeed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey