A debate about Labor that’s actually worth having
Bob Carr is a keen diarist. He kept a lively and detailed diary during his time in NSW politics, including his years as Premier.
Extracts from it provided the basis for a revealing biography described by one reviewer as “a grand disrobing”.
As Foreign Minister, Carr is believed still to jot down every day a record of his personal thoughts on events and discussions he is involved in.
And some of his new federal colleagues are uneasy about it, worried that some or all of Carr’s federal thoughtlines might appear in book form when Julia Gillard’s government is no more and he settles back into retirement.
Carr loves books—writing as well as reading them. He also has a deep interest in history, including Labor Party history.
Which is why his bagging of former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner for daring to produce a book dealing with some of Labor’s problems was so jarring.
“I’m sure there is terrific analysis in Lindsay’s book because Lindsay is very brainy,” Carr said patronisingly, standing outside the United Nations building in New York.
“But it’s got a bit too easy to write another book spelling out what’s wrong with the battered old Labor Party.”
He added: “We went through a stage where every galah in a pet shop had an opinion about what was wrong with the Labor Party. Now, I’m sick of that.”
Tanner is no galah. He is a substantial Labor figure. Carr’s smug put-down does the Foreign Minister no credit.
Less than a year ago Carr was happy to launch Troy Bramston’s book, “Looking for the Light on the Hill—Modern Labor’s Challenges”.
The publisher’s blurb said “ Labor is bedevilled by twin problems: the loss of its intrinsic culture of strong, bold, and innovative leadership; and an identity crisis that has emerged because Labor has failed to refresh its values, philosophy and purpose for the modern era”.
In other words, Bramston’s book dealt with what is wrong with the modern Labor Party, expressing some concerns similar to Tanner’s.
Yet Carr heaped praise on one, scorn on the other.
He enthusiastically endorsed Bramston’s call for the ALP to distance itself from “power brokers”, for example, and said: “These types did enough damage to the party in the lead-up to the last state elections and in the lead-up to the last federal elections.”
But that was then and this is now. Then, like Tanner, Carr was retired from active politics. Now he is back in it, and willing to make a hypocrite of himself if it suits the political interests of the government.
One of Tanner’s key points in “Politics With Purpose” is that the knifing of Kevin Rudd, a first term prime minister, was a mistake.
Another is that Labor needs “a root and branch rethink about why we exist” because the party has become “an electoral machine largely devoid of wider purpose”.
They are hardly outrageous views. Many in the Labor Party would agree with them.
In his New York news conference, Carr said that, if he had stayed in retirement, “it would have been a pushover to have polished off another book, number 20, on what’s wrong with the Labor Party”.
But Carr DID write such a book,or something close to it, with former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and former Defence Minister John Faulkner.
At the request of the ALP national executive, the trio produced a report on why the 2010 election campaign went so wrong and what should be done to rebuild the party’s support.
Their recommendations for reform were largely ignored.
And much of the report has been kept secret, even though -in marked contrast to his attitude to the Tanner book -Carr wanted the document made public.
I find it inconceivable that Carr really believes debate about Labor and it’s future should be suppressed, given his erudite contribution to it in the past.
He penned a particularly interesting article on the subject in The Financial Review in March, on the very day Gillard announced that he would enter the senate and take up the foreign affairs portfolio.
Carr rejected calls for the party to reconnect with its base and re-embrace core principles.
“Nobody knows what ‘social inclusion’ means,” he wrote. “And I am getting weary of attempts to invoke Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’, more being made of it than Chifley ever intended.
“Arguments that Labor has got to ‘return to its base’ ring hollow when one tries to find the base.
“There are no eternal principles to wave around, just a cranky ‘socialisation’ objective adopted by accident in 1921 that nobody understood or was prepared to implement”.
Carr said in the article that there is not much afterglow in Labor’s past because the party “was generally make-shift and improvised”.
And he suggested: “There may lie the way forward. Improvisation—smart leaders collecting the best that is around and making it up as they go along.”
Tanner on one side calling for a renewed sense of purpose, Carr on the other advocating that Labor improvise and experiment.
It sounds to me like a debate worth having.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.
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