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Bob Carr, erudite and urbane?

By Shelly Savage - posted Friday, 29 July 2005

On the eve of NSW Premier Bob Carr’s not really very surprising resignation it’s worth seeking lessons from his leadership. Three aspects of the Premier’s tenure are particularly intriguing. He is repeatedly described as an unusual leader: often because of his so deemed bookish and intellectual qualities though sometime because of his atypical appearance. He is considered a masterful manager of the media: a skill typically attributed to the influence of his former career in journalism. And, there is also confusion over whether or not he has been active in policy development.

Confusion over policy is not surprising. Policy is a strange beast - sometimes hard to identify. Indeed it’s often in the best interests of those wishing to execute it to make it undetectable. At the beginning of his tenure Carr annexed quite a bit of the state to conservation protection. He did this against a backdrop of loud complaints from environmentalists that it wasn’t enough, from timber workers that their livelihoods were being destroyed, and from bureaucrats that there was insufficient funding to manage the land.

Each of the complainants had a justifiable case and therein rests a serious problem for policy activism. No matter what action a government takes, somebody will be able to forward a convincing argument about why it is precisely the wrong action. Never-the-less, the Premier did execute strong conservation policy at the outset and in so doing established his political credentials by successfully securing the environment vote while still holding onto the rural workers’ vote.


There’s a lesson in this for the lobbyist - be sure to be the marginal interest group and not the rusted on old faithful when negotiating with government. But a later one for the politicians - the electorate’s ability to learn acts like WD40 on rusted votes. Carr’s political savvy is demonstrable in his decision to leave well enough alone after his initial environment policy flutter. His federal colleagues didn’t learn the same lesson and Mark Latham suffered spectacularly when a similar environment policy tactic was attempted at the last federal election.

Carr’s Deputy Premier Dr Andrew Refshauge also made some early headway with the Health portfolio, making some sense of the disparate collection of area health services and hospitals that are rather optimistically described as NSW Health. While Refshauge’s input didn’t fix the system, he certainly left a more cohesive department than the one he found. He presided over improved management of resources, if at the expense of convenience for those who’d prefer services to be replicated in every hospital rather than consolidated. Loud dissent accompanied Refshauge’s reforms and inspired his eventual move to a less public portfolio. His achievements have since been overshadowed by the futile attempt to sell the electorate a line about reducing waiting lists. An impossible task, given the predictable expansion in demand for health services that arises from combining an ever increasing scope for medical intervention with an aging population.

I’d put my money on Refshauge’s rapid departure to join his friends and former colleagues in the sun and his replacement as Deputy by John Watkins. Though I’m often wrong.

Carr’s long time Treasurer, the now well tanned Egan, held firmly to a policy of fiscal responsibility throughout his tenure. Whether or not we citizens benefit from the spending restraint that enables such policy will differ with perspective. The strict budgetary control while the source of many a good news story for almost a decade may yet help bring this government down on the predictable issue of transport. Carr’s mentor, Wran, said something wise about getting them to work and home on time each day to secure their vote as he first won office on the issue of rail transport. Oops.

The Government really has let the ball drop in regard to funding the public transport system though at least some of the recent trouble has been caused by the policy of workplace reform executed to improve productivity in the transport workforce. A little work-to-rule resistance in response to reform has helped ensure that people haven’t been getting to work and home on time of late and this gives more comfort to the advocates of policy caution.

Decades of observing the political turmoil that policy activism causes has contributed to an era of policy caution typified in Carr’s later-term style. It has also contributed to an increased use of public relations to manage dissent. Enter the intrigue of Carr’s masterful media management. While there is no doubt that Carr is a consummate media performer with a skill developed during his journalism career, the story of public relations is not so simple. The model of increased use of public relations as a policy tool - manifest in radically increased employment of public relations operatives in the ministry and bureaucracy as well as the increased use of public relations consultants to manage particular projects - is replicated in political jurisdictions across Australia and around the world.


Carr didn’t invent the system, indeed in part the capacity to develop it was brought about by the globally observable public sector reform that Carr is criticised for failing to progress - such is the joy of unintended effects. Carr is simply damned good at executing public relations and knowing a good thing when he sees it. Carr’s media skills, which he developed through working temporarily in journalism after deciding to pursue a political career, is likely to have factored keenly in his party’s initial choice of him as leader.

Carr is not the only current Australian political leader to have come from the media. South Australian Premier Mike Rann and Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin both enjoyed prominent careers in the media prior to becoming politicians. With three from eight, this makes journalism the most common former occupation of the current premiers and chief ministers of Australia. Journalism is one of a number of obvious paths into politics and Carr is cast in the model of many of his political peers and forebears in taking this path. But the journalist politicians are not the only spin kings - think Beattie, think Howard, indeed think Wran. All lawyers.

Carr is often described as urbane, literate or, most commonly, bookish. The omnipresent application of such descriptions infers these qualities are distinctive to the NSW Premier and that he is an exceptional politician for holding them. Yet a quick glance around the current crop of political leaders will show that he is one of many erudite individuals leading an Australian jurisdiction. Indeed one of many Labor Right politicians, both now and in the fairly recent past, who are erudite and urbane.

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About the Author

Shelly Savage is a Lecturer of Public Policy in the Discipline of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. She is currently teaching Australian Politics and researching policy, public relations and politics in New South Wales.

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