Former Labor Premier Bob Carr told an intriguing story about himself at this morning’s launch of his latest book, Run for your Life. At the end of his first year at university, while bushwalking in the Blue Mountains, he’d entered a local restaurant and asked the waitress for a “chicken”.

Bemused, she went out to the kitchen and brought out a chicken breast in a paper bag. “I meant to eat here,” he replied. Bob, from the working-class Sydney suburb of Matraville, had never been inside a restaurant and didn’t know that you sat down and read a menu. “That was the background that I came from.”

Carr said that being born in a fibro house, having a train driver for a father and going to Matraville High had given him the “most spectacular advantage of (his) life.” He joined the Malabar/South Matraville branch of the ALP at the age of 15 and those monthly meetings, along with the fortnightly visit from the municipal mobile lending library, were the cornerstones of his existence. This was “an invitation to live off one’s wits” he said, adding that he had a “yawning curiosity to see what the great adventure might offer.”

The book, which he describes as a “hymn to public service” is also an homage to his political hero, former Prime Minister, the late Gough Whitlam. Gough’s eldest son, former Federal Court judge Tony Whitlam introduced the book and his equally tall siblings Nick Whitlam and Catherine Dovey were in the audience, along with a Chinese banquet hall of Labor luminaries – former NSW Premiers Nathan Rees and Morris Iemma and former politicians Michael Egan, John Faulkner and Geoff Gallop.

Former staffers Bruce Hawker, Graeme Wedderburn and Amanda Lampe were also there, along with Jill Wran, Australia’s first ambassador to China,
Stephen Fitzgerald, and writer Mike Carlton.

Carr paid tribute to Lampe, who rescued him from a political storm he’d triggered in 2003 by joking with two Telegraph reporters he saw breakfasting on fast food that sausage rolls were “fat encased in fat”. Lampe had forcibly told him he had to eat humble pie – an actual sausage roll – in front of the TV cameras; the controversy went away.

The retired pollie is an excellent writer with a rapier wit; the book is worth buying just for his description of the former Labor politican, Ian Macdonald (aka Sir Lunchalot) who is currently serving a ten-year jail sentence for corruption.

“When, after my resignation, he began to pursue his corrupt schemes, it was possible to see him as a personality type right out of the Marxist-Leninist regimes of Eastern Europe, ideological and corrupt, a commissar tucking into a feast of game in one of the Stasi hunting lodges, his great jaws chomping even as he dribbled gravy and lifted a Pfeffi schnapps in a toast to Comrade Honecker, or as minister in charge of the sulphuric industries of communist Czechoslovakia, steering foreign delegations of communist worthies to a feast of goose and pork wrung out of the special party canteens for the nomenklatura. I once bumped into him at a concert…even the way he praised Tchaikovsky’s Fourth had a gluttony about it.”

For his whole political life, Carr was criticised for his unAustralian indifference to sport. In the book he says his friend John McCarthy wanted him to be seen in a towelling hat and sunscreen, spending a whole day at the test cricket.

“If someone had said I would have to volunteer for an Amnesty anti-torture campaign and sit in a dark cupboard without food or water for 24 hours, I would have seen that as easily the more appetising prospect,” he writes.

ALP general secretary Stephen Loosley once instructed him to spend an hour a week reading the sports pages, Carr relates. “If this was the price of political success, it was too high. I have never read an article in the sports pages of the newspaper in my entire life.”

In his introduction, Tony Whitlam quoted Paul Keating; “journalism is a ratshit profession,” but Carr is more forgiving, saying that he couldn’t in all honesty have survived as NSW party leader for 17 years and then complain about his media coverage.

While “clamorous, one-sided and spiteful media” is the price paid for living in a free society, politicians should turn that to their advantage, he said, quoting one of his literary idols, Gore Vidal. “Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.” Ultimately, big wins settle all arguments, he writes.

At the end of the launch, Bob thanked everyone and announced that all the royalties from the book would go to the refugee charity, Australians for UNHCR. Then he gathered up his wife of 45-years, Helena, the Whitlams and all the remnants of the great wandering tribes of Labor and went to lunch. With a menu.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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