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Political overdrive

The Labor Party is rapidly becoming a Pepys show. The candid insights in Don Watson’s bestselling account of the ­Keating government draws on the journals he kept while employed as a prime ministerial ghostwriter. He now has a New South Wales doppelgänger in Marilyn Dodkin. Her annals of the Bob Carr era are based on the premier’s diaries augmented with comments, sometimes rather too glowing, from Carr’s staff and party colleagues.

The result is a tale of two cities. Writing in the shadow of the March 1996 ­federal election debacle, Watson sees things through a glass darkly. His is a glum Canberra tale of decline and fall. Dodkin, in contrast, has a sunny Sydney ending, tracing Bob Carr’s ascent from bookish nerd to ‘the people’s premier’.

Watson’s theme is the ruination of Keating’s Big Picture brand of ­government. Voters in the provinces saw this as remote and patronising. Dodkin’s Carr is rooted in the barbarous realm of state politics which, as Carr readily admits in his diary, is banal in comparison with Keating’s bold vistas.
Carr is an accidental premier. His first inclination was for federal politics, with ideally a stint as Foreign Minister before taking up a life of ‘elegant curiosity’ in Europe. He was transported to Macquarie Street because his right-wing faction felt unable to allocate him a safe federal seat. After his Labor state government lost office in 1988 Carr became leader because Laurie Brereton was blacklisted. This meant that when a longed for ­federal seat finally became vacant in 1990 Brereton, and not Carr, was free to take it up.

As a tyro state Opposition Leader Carr stoically embraced the treadmill of ­endless fundraising functions and visits to shopping centres. A journalist by trade, he was well equipped for the crucial task of hustling for media coverage. He had a wide range of conduits to the print and electronic media, including a private fax line to John Laws. These were used to the full as he tirelessly worked up local issues and publicised stunts in parliament and leaks from the bureaucracy.

The sense of hubris that permeates Watson’s account is singularly absent in the Dodkin book. There is no pride here. Carr seems to be driven by an excessive need to overcome self-perceived physical and cultural deficiencies. A ruthless ­regimen of physical exercise is matched by an equally earnest commitment to German lessons and reading Proust (although Carr’s willingness to skip vast chunks of Proustian introspection would seem to defeat the purpose of the exercise).

Keating’s failure to connect with ­voters was fatal for his long-term ­prospects. Carr has avoided this mistake. He came within striking distance of power in 1991 by tapping into a creeping suspicion

that the brashly reforming Greiner Liberal government was out of touch. He won in 1995 by sticking to a focus on basic services and marginal seats.

In office Carr is committed to a ‘sensible management of public sector services’. This allows him to differentiate himself from a Kennett-style slash and burn approach to downsizing and privatisation. A measured reduction in the public sector is enough to generate opposition among ALP rank and filers but this only serves to make his government seem all the more responsible in the eyes of the wider electorate.

There has been no let-up in Carr’s constant campaigning. Detailed policy work can be left to advisers and staffers freeing up the leader’s time for the odd well publicised populist intervention. The investment in cultivating the media and publicity paid off handsomely in 2003 when Labor was supported by an
advertising blitz and endorsed, for the first time ever, by the Sydney Morning Herald.

A big political occasion, whether an election day or party conference, used to rob Carr of a night’s sleep. This seems to happen less now although Carr remains an unlikely politician. A late diary entry indicates a sickness at the prospect of ‘flawed human beings projecting their demands for the state to legislate miracles’. Such a person would never have become a state premier if this were a matter of choice rather than chance.

The diary extracts used by Dodkin indicate that Carr will never rival the racy candour of a Pepys but they are lively reading nonetheless. There is a naughty reference to Michael Knight’s planting a slanted story in the media in the days before the future Olympics tsar switched factions. A comment on Mark Latham’s failure to win a preselection ballot because of poor grassroots work is also ­noteworthy. Carr’s joy when ­recording the fate of Peter Anderson, a possible challenger who lost preselection in 1994, is unalloyed.
Montesquieu would approve of the current condition of Australia’s political geography, with an array of provincial Labor governments balancing the Howard ascendancy in Canberra. There is no unhealthy concentration of power. Bob Carr pioneered this configuration.

Carr’s success in New South Wales continues to bear an inverse relationship to Labor’s electoral stock at the federal level. There is no telling what would happen if he tried to change streams. Dodkin concludes her account by canvassing the possibility of Carr’s finally going to Canberra. Such advice, if followed, could well backfire on a man she so clearly admires. 

Bob Carr: The Reluctant Leader, Marilyn Dodkin.
UNSW Press, 2003. isbn 0 86840 757 7, rrp $29.95.

Stephen Holt is the unofficial biographer of the famed journalist Alan Reid.



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