Bob's Back

Election night 1995: In the Opposition Leader’s poky office in Macquarie Street. Bob Carr sat alone amid stacks of media releases, wondering if seven years of relentless campaigning had been for nought. It was a revealing contrast to his jaunty, defiant public claim to the nerves of a u-boat commander. The truth was only a few busloads of votes stood between Bob Carr and political oblivion as a washed up, two-time loser in the relative backwater of NSW politics while his friends Keating, Brereton and Richardson had enjoyed stellar Federal parliamentary careers. However, thanks to an astute marginal seat campaign, and Labor’s brilliant recapture of its heartland electorates in 1991, Bob’s fears were needless. His 10-year reign as the longest continuously serving Premier of NSW had begun.

- By Carl Green

Sometimes the best insight in a political leader comes from their time outside government. Menzies going away to ‘bleed awhile’. Nixon’s refusal to challenge the legitimacy of Kennedy’s election. Whitlam’s journey to China in 1971. Such moments, freed of the props of office, measure the quality and class of a politician. For Bob Carr, this moment came in 1988 – a year that defined the future course of his time in public life. Labor had just suffered a humiliating defeat and Carr had been forced to sacrifice his federal ambitions to the needs of the NSW Labor.

First and foremost in that decisive year, Carr backed the formation of ICAC against the judgement of many of his colleagues. He supported Greiner’s introduction of the Basic Skills Test, now NAPLAN. He gave a gracious speech of welcome to Prime Minister Thatcher that affirmed the power of oratory in the age of 10-second grabs. At the 1988 State Conference, Bob stood up and defended the best of the Wran-Unsworth legacy, a step both decent and shrewd. In that same speech he warned of the dangers of a looming environmental catastrophe called the ‘greenhouse effect’ which we now know as climate change. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, he made repeated trips to the Hunter and Illawarra, sometimes standing on a milk crate outside factory gates, reconnecting with voters the ALP had just lately lost.

Everything you need to know about Bob Carr can be found in the actions and decisions he undertook in that Bicentennial year. Bob’s appointment as Foreign Minister has given renewed impetus to the Gillard Government, and it is not surprising that our conservative opponents should in response attempt to diminish his vivid legacy as a reforming, activist State Premier. Campbell Newman is the latest pet shop galah to squawk criticism of the Carr legacy, his comments providing a window onto the envy that conservatives show when Labor succeeds in government. Witness the concerted campaign by right-wing ideologues to deny Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan credit over their handling of the GFC.

The truth is our State and Territory Labor governments long ago developed a creative synthesis of prudent fiscal management, effective service delivery, strong justice policies and informed advocacy of emerging social and environmental issues dating back to the days of McGowen, Holman and TJ Ryan, through McKell, Forgan Smith to Reece, Dunstan, Wran and Goss. Bob Carr reinvented this tradition to meet the demands of the 24-hour media cycle and the age of culture wars, inspiring an extraordinary generation of leaders along the way – Beattie, Bacon, Bracks, Stanhope, Martin, Gallop and Rann.

The term ‘professional politician’ so often evokes an image of someone smoking a Montecristo with one hand while shovelling mouthfuls of chow mein with the other in some Sussex Street backroom. But for the very best practitioners, professional politics is a craft built on deep respect for the democratic process. A craft that demands regard for its peculiar skills and disciplines. A craft doggedly honed over years and decades. And Bob Carr is foremost a craftsman. That’s why he undertook the voice coaching, the acting classes, the exercise regime, the early bedtimes. He even had a hair transplant – what he archly termed his best conservation decision – because he didn’t want external quibbles to get in the way of the message. In the world of the political professional, there is never a day when you become so good that further improvement isn’t necessary. Bob even had the respect to be nervous and sleepless the night before a major address like State Conference or a significant media engagement. He even considered polling day to be a ‘sacrament’. Bob knew he was playing in the big league and never took it for granted. When Carr came to office in April 1995, a protracted recession was still easing and Bob knew that economic responsibility must form the basis of his government’s credibility and success.

As it turned out, there was only ever one Carr budget deficit – the first, itself inherited from the outgoing Fahey Government. The State’s AAA credit rating was repeatedly confirmed year after year. Debt was not ‘racked up’ as Campbell Newman so desperately claims. Rather all the general government debt accrued by the Greiner-Fahey administration – $10 billion worth – was paid off in full and the best ever Olympic Games were funded upfront without the debt overhang typical of most Olympics. As for Newman’s shrill claim that Carr ‘really crippled the state’s economy with new taxes and charges’, Payroll Tax was cut from 8 to 6 percent. Newman claims Bob didn’t build infrastructure, conveniently ignoring the fact that during the Carr era, NSW infrastructure investment was 33 percent higher (in real terms) than the average for the 1990s and 66 percent higher than the average for the 1980s.

Projects undertaken include M5 East, the M4 widening, the Eastern Distributor, the Lane Cove Tunnel, the Cross City Tunnel, the M7 and the busways, to say nothing of local projects like the Woronora Bridge or the dozens of hospitals rebuilt like Tweed Heads, Lithgow, St Vincent’s, Blacktown, Campbelltown and Queanbeyan. It was a well-run government. Decent nominations were made to high office like Professor Marie Bashir as Governor and Jim Spigelman as Chief Justice, alongside many astute bureaucratic appointments. Cabinet processes were sound. Paperwork flowed. Advice was sought and taken.

There was strong respect for the professionalism of the public service. Importantly, there was an effective leadership team built around the troika of Bob Carr, Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge and Treasurer Michael Egan. Power was delegated to Ministers. Good ideas were encouraged. Most importantly, there was a strong ethos and esprit de corps. Barry O’Farrell’s floundering despite an historic majority gives some insight into just how hard it is to be a modern premier. Bob Carr simply made it look easy, but it wasn’t. The Carr Government’s 10 years of good governance for the people of NSW was no accident. Lists of achievements always risk being boring. Fans know them. Enemies dispute them. And historians never agree on them. But it’s worth retelling the highlights of the Carr years since Bob’s appointment as Foreign Minister has occasioned a renewed assault on his legacy.

Let’s start with the intended results like NSW students achieving the best literacy and numeracy standards of all the states. The declaration of 350 new national parks and the introduction of the world’s first carbon trading scheme, giving voice to Bob’s long-held passion for the environment. Or the tough sentencing laws and increased police numbers that reflected Bob’s belief that working class communities shouldn’t have to live with the fear of crime.

The basic indicators each went the right way – crime levels, hospital waiting times, court lists, all down. Literacy rates, jobs figures – all up. There were the institutional innovations like the Police Integrity Commission to help ensure a corruption-resistant police force, the Administrative Decisions Tribunal and the Commission for Children and Young People.

There were forestry reforms that ended broadscale land-clearing and made chronic logging conflicts a thing of the past. And the successful extension of public-private partnerships into nontraditional areas of health, schools and housing. There were the sympathetic social justice initiatives like the nation’s first and only medically supervised injecting centre, the removal of discriminatory measures against gay and lesbian people from State laws, levelling the age of consent at 16, the historic equal pay case for workers in female dominated professions like librarianship, and refocusing multiculturalism towards citizenship and shared values. There was a sincere and generous outreach to Indigenous communities, including the nation’s first Apology to the Stolen Generations, the first mainland handover of Native Title following the Mabo judgment and the repayment of stolen wages and entitlements. There was the calm and assured response to unexpected events like the rail accidents at Glenbrook and Waterfall, the September 11 and Bali terror attacks, the HIH collapse and James Hardie’s attempt to evade justice. There was Bob’s leadership on national issues such as population policy, tort law reform, stem-cell research, disability care and the impact of obesity and poor diet on the nation’s wellbeing. And there was a sustained focus on quality of life issues like the arts, adaptive reuse of buildings like the Mint, the Conservatorium and Walsh Bay, urban planning reforms including a code to improve the design of apartments, plus amenity improvements such as ending smoking in restaurants, banning canal estates and removing jet skis from Sydney Harbour.

These issues were never allowed to get in the way of Bob’s top-level message of good economic management and strong law enforcement, but they went a long way to making NSW a much more vibrant and liveable place than it was a decade before. Pope Leo X is said to have remarked: ‘Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.’ There was something of this to the Carr style. Not only was he good at politics – he enjoyed it. Not the perks but the opportunity afforded by high office to express a generous and expansive view of life. Bob Carr always lined up with the enlargers, not the straighteners. Bob always loved to start a day with a school visit. His first question – invariably asking children about their love of books – always elicited a forest of little hands. He loved the ability to swoop like an eagle with a new policy announcement or appointment that completely changed the political dynamic, like the appointment of Police Commissioner Peter Ryan in 1996. He relished being able to bring out Gore Vidal or do something a less assured premier would never contemplate, like decrying the evils of sausage rolls or walking out on a feted movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an impish move reported as far away as Canada and India.

And there was always the restless intellectual curiosity. Visiting Primo Levi’s grave. Talleyrand’s study. Stalin’s office. Interviewing professors, cardinals, imams, congressmen – soaking up facts and new ways of seeing the world. He even went to a lecture at Moore Theological College because he respected the rigour and integrity of the evangelical tradition despite his own agnosticism. There was Bob’s gift of mirth and mimicry, which could have his entire staff howling with laughter during an office meeting. But he’d seen how Whitlam’s ironic and self-deprecating style of humour was twisted to make him seem arrogant, so Bob prudently reserved his wackiness for close friends and associates.

Occasionally it slipped out, like when he took a copy of Tolstoy into Question Time lovingly wrapped in the outer cover of the Local Government Act. But he’d earned the indulgence. Bob Carr wore many hats. He was the relentless campaigner who never let a week pass without visiting a marginal seat. He was the chief coach endlessly encouraging ministers and MPs. He was the media magician who always had something to say, and he knew how to say it. Bob also surprised even himself when, by the early 2000s, he had become, like John Howard, a strong paternal figure who reassured the community when natural disasters and terrorism struck.

All in all, a thorough consideration of the record makes Campbell Newman’s jibe that Bob Carr ‘destroyed NSW’ seem not only inaccurate but petty and incredibly mean-hearted. Indeed it is hard to imagine any of the nation’s current crop of conservative state politicians being even half the leader of Bob Carr when measured in character, achievement or grandeur of spirit. There is nothing in their commonplace approach that can’t be found in any ‘US politics 101’ textbook or an edition of Campaigns and Elections magazine.

Bob Carr brought something different and remarkable to Australian politics – nimble, intelligent, improvisatory, refreshing. Bob has always been fond of exploring the odd possibilities of parallel universes, like the alternative career path that would have taken him from high school to being an animator in the Disney studios, a fond boyhood fancy. There’s another one – his long-held dream of winning Kingsford-Smith after Lionel Bowen’s retirement. Imagine the reality of fronting up to the talentpacked Federal Caucus of 1987 where he might, at best, have secured a parliamentary secretaryship or an outer ministry, followed perhaps by a Cabinet post in the waning Keating era and then tedious years exiled in the desert of Opposition. Bowen’s delayed retirement in 1990 was the crushing of Bob’s hopes and their making. He became a great if unexpected Premier, one of the best ever. And by the vagaries of time and events, and the patient goodwill of his wife, he is now available to serve our nation in both the chamber and portfolio he always desired. History can be kind. It is a role not without its exceptional predecessors – Barton, Deakin, Hughes, Evatt, Casey, Whitlam, Evans and Rudd to name a few.

Bob Carr stands worthily in their company, and like them evokes the strange alchemy of Australian politics that allows such fertile, mercurial, eccentric figures admission to its very front ranks. The key to Bob Carr’s character is perhaps best captured in the subtitle of one of his biographies, ‘a self made man’. Bob Carr is indeed a self-created man. There was nothing in the modest life of that fibro house in Maroubra that gave any hint of the range and sophistication that was to come. Bob took a kernel of natural talent, added a passingly good education and through relentless application and reinvention, forged them into a political persona so powerful it not only made him the longest serving leader of our biggest State but has seen him improbably summoned, Cincinnatuslike, to public service once again. Many countries have such figures available waiting in the wings. It takes a clever country to make the offer. And Australia is a clever country.