||Issue No. 144||12 July 2002|
The Lotto Economy
Interview: Capital in Crisis
Industrial: No Sweat
Bad Boss: Super Spam
History: Living Treasures
International: Axis of Evil
Solidarity: Pride of Place
Technology: The Art of Cyber-Unionism
Poetry: The Masochism Tango
Satire: Foxtel-Optus Merger 'Anti-Repetitive'
Review: Bob Carr's Thoughtlines
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Bob Carr's Thoughtlines
The media is fascinated by NSW Premier Bob Carr's eggheaded interest in American history and fine literature, but this stress on his originality is a trifle exaggerated. More than a century ago Carr's colonial predecessor, Henry Parkes (a fellow journalist), showed that it was perfectly possible to pursue these same two high-brow passions while governing NSW.
Thoughtlines, Carr's recently published selection of speeches, reviews and essays, is important despite the gush. Along with extracts from an unpublishable novel (Titanic Forces), which reads more like a film script, Carr's best occasional pieces present crucial insights into the making of a keen political mind. If there is originality in Thoughtlines this is where it is.
Carr was a Laborite but, except for a few months, he was hardly a "teenage Whitlamite'', although he describes himself as such. When he joined the party in the 1960s he was inspired by Arthur Calwell and Professor L. F. Crisp's biography of Ben Chifley.
Carr started off as a "democratic socialist'' who believed in the old-fashioned virtues of government ownership, but his youthful collectivist faith withered under the impact of Calwell's electoral defeats in the 1960s. He ceased to be a 1940s-style socialist and instead embraced Gough Whitlam's revisionist brand of Laborism.
The failure of the Whitlam experiment in the mid-1970s drove Carr further to the centre. He became, as he explained in Quadrant, a "social democrat'' of the sort encountered in Europe. Society was to be reformed in an unambiguously pluralistic spirit. Faith in state ownership needed to be wound back lest voters confused Labor with the Cold War tyrants of Eastern Europe.
Carr was a courageous ghost writer in the lead-up to John Ducker's presidential address to the 1978 NSW party conference. He drafted a speech calling on the ALP to repudiate a "bogus militant style''. Labor should regard socialism as a Marxist-Leninist bugbear; it had to rise above claptrap and convince voters that it could outperform the conservatives in prudent economic management. Labor had to be competent as well as compassionate.
Ducker repudiated Carr but the aborted draft speech was prophetic nonetheless. It pointed to Labor's current post-Hanson challenge because it was all about the need to target the concerns of "rural and provincial Australia''. Carr wanted Labor to uphold the pragmatic strategy originally forged by NSW Labor leader William McKell back in 1941. Steering carefully between Labor's conservative opponents and its industrial wing, McKell swept into office on the back of a swag of successful rustic candidates.
Carr once dreamt of becoming a foreign minister but factional machinations blocked his path to Canberra. He never matched the federal career of Paul Keating, hailed in a 1979 article as Labor's "chief emissary to the boardrooms''.
Long confined to state politics, Carr still champions McKell as his political hero. He hopes to emulate him by sticking to a Labor style carefully suited to a deeply conservative people. A Labor leader must be "non-abrasive'' and politically sensitive, with reform emanating from the middle ground. Applying this template brought Carr electoral success in the 1990s just as Keating's once brilliant star was fading.
Carr's approach is presented in Thoughtlines as the product of a post-Whitlam era. More relevantly it is also a non-Keating vision. His version of party history makes it hard to revere McKell's erstwhile ALP rival J. T. Lang. Paul Keating, in contrast, drew strength from the ever-divisive Lang cult. This poisonous legacy defined his status as a true believer.
Downplaying the tribal importance of the lugubrious Lang allows Carr to distance his state government from residual unpopularity generated by dark memories of the late Keating years. It makes it easier to become identified as a voter-friendly political persona. Carr favours a sunny Sydney Olympics-style ethos of community service. The task is to keep things ticking happily along in "the world's most favoured nation at the best moment in our history''.
State politics is, as Carr readily admits a "provincial'' affair, but it provides a perfect locale for a cautious Labor leader wishing to do better with less. Practical yet non-market-driven reforms can be pursued in areas such as conservation and reconciliation. Federation year praise for "our British heritage'' adds to the aura of sweetness and light.
Bob Carr's career shows that new laurels can still be added to the six-decade saga of an impressive tradition of centrist Labor politics. Thoughtlines is his third-way road map.
Thoughtlines: Reflections of a Public Man, Viking, Paperback, 416pp, $35. ISBN 0670040258
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