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The paradox of Bob Carr

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 28 July 2005

Bob Carr has been a paradox. I saw first-hand evidence of this, at the unlikely venue of Hayman Island last year where Carr and I were both speakers at the Australia-Davos Connection annual conference. We shared the podium at a session on the “history wars”.

Knowing Carr’s public views on asylum seekers - which are on the whole unsympathetic - I decided to talk a little about how history will judge our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. After I had spoken Carr, who was sitting next to me, told me, sotto voce, a charming story about Afghan girls he had encountered at a Western Sydney school. “They are fine young people and will be terrific citizens,” the premier informed me.

The paradox was evident up until the moment of political death. In recent days, Carr has lined up with Australia’s most conservative Prime Minister John Howard on the issue of curtailment of civil liberties in the name of the fight against terrorism. Such a simplistic and knee-jerk policy response is not what one would expect from a political leader who is exceptionally well-read, who is a history junkie and is genuinely moved by classical music and the visual arts.


Carr was, in contrast to his predecessor and my former employer John Fahey, a bookish and intellectually arrogant premier of New South Wales. Not for him the “blokiness” and genuine humility of Fahey. Carr was the chalk to Fahey’s cheese. Yet John Fahey’s political and policy instincts were more liberal than Carr's.

This is not to say that Carr was capital “C” conservative. That would be too simple a categorisation for this political paradox. After all, this was the premier who, soon after he was elected to office in 1995, moved the governor out of his sandstone pile in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens so that it could be opened to the public. Carr’s green credentials saw NSW leading Australia on greenhouse policies and the creation of national parks. And he had the foresight and political courage to open a heroin injecting room in Kings Cross.

Yet the law-and-order rhetoric and reality of Bob Carr’s New South Wales was a key feature of his term of office. There was little respect for the evenly balanced scales of justice. Carr appeared to believe that there was such a thing as the criminal class and the community needed to be protected from it. Redemption and rehabilitation of criminals - something pushed to the fore by Neville Wran’s reformist prisons director, Tony Vinson, in the 1970s - were not features of Carr’s world. Sydney as a seething mass of criminality, which if not controlled vigorously and assiduously would overrun the metropolis, seemed to underpin Carr’s view of the law. In this sense, he appeared to be listening to the voices of Sydney’s early governors and jailers.

It is perhaps the ultimate paradox that, given we are reflecting upon someone as intellectually and intuitively intelligent as Carr, no one can point to any cohesive policy reform agenda which occurred on his decade-long watch. Unlike, say, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a man whom Carr admires. Marcus Aurelius was a genuine reformer - he civilised Rome, freed slaves, refused to put up taxes and even ordered the circus not be as bloody as it had been in the past.

Or what of an individual whose country Carr seems genuinely fascinated by - the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt? The great reformer. The leader, who transformed his country to such an extent, the mean and callous right wing of the Bush-led Republicans is now determined to strike down the “New Deal” edifice once and for all some 70 years later.

In many respects Bob Carr was able to work within the reformist legacies of Neville Wran and Nick Greiner. His economic strategy was built on fiscal discipline (albeit fraying at times) with large dollops from the honey pot for education, health and regional areas. Once the unions had warned Carr and his trusty sidekick for much of his premiership, former Treasurer Michael Egan, to dump any thought of privatising NSW’s electricity utilities, Carr seemed to lose interest in large scale micro-economic reform.


Mind you, and again the paradox kicks in, if you spent some time listening to Carr’s beautifully rounded and melliferous voice, you might come away thinking the man was a policy wonk whose passion in life was reform and vision. A speech Carr delivered in 2001, which I attended, was a case in point. The premier talked eloquently, without a note in sight, about the gradual transformation of the Illawarra area from a declining, grimy industrial town into a vibrant community which was managing to successfully merge its new and old economies into a “new Jerusalem”.

And what of the 2000 Olympics? Adjudged the world’s most successful by most commentators. Just as Marcus Aurelius managed the theatre of the Roman empire with aplomb, so did Bob Carr. As a man for whom competitive sport is decidedly uninteresting, he presided over the clockwork efficiency and glamour of Australia’s moment in the sun.

The caravan moves on - politics is cruel like that. Carr will no doubt continue to interest and challenge us with regular forays into the literary world, but it’s just a pity the paradox of Bob Carr was not juxtaposed more often. The curious and adventurous intellectual should have been given a freer rein.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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