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Book review: Bob Carr for Canberra: the revenge of the ALP nerd

By Stephen Holt - posted Wednesday, 15 October 2003

Labor's once all-powerful New South Wales Right faction is desperate to restore its faded fortunes. Its latest stage-managed State conference in Sydney was used as a vehicle to demonstrate its disloyalty through the careful calibration of the level of applause afforded to Simon Crean and Bob Carr respectively.

In this Orwellian world, books as well as party congresses are seen as weapons of political destruction. The "Carr for Canberra" speculation that was used to publicise Andrew West and Rachel Morris's biography of Bob Carr was, as the authors' account clearly indicates, kicked off by the NSW Right. This is a poignant fact. The fortunes of the faction have sunk so low since its glory days in the 1980s that it is now forced to boost a man whom it once regarded as a political weakling.

For West and Morris the Bob Carr story so far has had two major two phases. There is upward mobility as Carr, the son of a train driver, seeks to transcend his origins in working-class Matraville through a dogged commitment to study and self-improvement. And there is the quest for political power signified by Carr's adhesion to the NSW Right. The ties of faction keep these two streams – the personal and the political - uneasily together.


The best way out of working-class obscurity for the young Robert Carr in the 1960s was through factional networking in a still ungentrified ALP. His background (Matraville High followed by UNSW) was suitably plebeian. His father was active in rank-and-file trade union affairs. Reading L F Crisp's biography of Ben Chifley sealed Carr's ALP faith. Gough Whitlam was his first living hero, attested by the hours Carr spent at night poring over books at a laminex table at home as he sought salvation through education. His first Labor patron was John Ducker, Carr being appointed as the Labor Council's education officer in 1971 after initial training as a journalist with the ABC.

Carr gravitated to the right-wing NSW machine because it controlled access to preferment. The authors include him along with Paul Keating and Laurie Brereton in "the first modern generation of Labor apparatchiki to believe they were owed seats in parliament merely because they craved it and plotted it".

An "unbaptised lapsed Presbyterian", Carr's adherence to the NSW Right, unlike Paul Keating's, was not based on Irish tribalism. It was ideological. The young Carr made his mark at Young Labor forums by coming across as a buttoned down anti-communist at a time when university students were expected to be middle-class radicals. He stridently denounced left-wing factional opponents as toffy-nosed elitists. Under the guidance of a fellow ABC journalist (John Russell) he bought into the highbrow anti-Soviet tradition embodied by the Cold War magazines Encounter and Commentary.

Carr was determined to sever the link between leftism and Laborism. It was in this spirit that he wrote an article for The Bulletin boosting the young Peter Costello. At the end of the 1980s he went for a triumphalist tour of Eastern Europe following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Carr's advancement as a professional politician depended on the NSW Right but he was not in the inner circle and sometimes it showed. In the days when they were both in Young Labor the ambitious Keating patronised the awestruck Carr (whom he affectionately dubbed "Young Robbie"). Carr was the pimply nerd while Keating and Brereton were the cool insiders. Carr's lesser status seemed set in concrete as the years progressed. His entry into parliament came more than a decade after Keating and the equally unbookish Brereton had secured safe parliamentary seats.

Carr's aura of erudite bookish unworldliness was confirmed as he tried to keep ordinary Labor voters at arm's length. In the 1970s he sought without success to be transferred to the rarefied atmosphere of the Senate where he hoped to become a "globe-trotting Foreign Minister". He was elected to the NSW parliament in 1983 and became Minister for the Environment on the understanding that state politics would be merely the prelude to the loftier sphere of federal politics.


Following Labor's defeat in NSW in 1988 Carr was denied a safe federal state (it went to Brereton instead) and ended up as Leader of the Opposition. This was seen, by insiders, as a booby prize. The bespectacled dork had got sand kicked in his face.

But Carr, ever dogged, was determined to show that Keating and company had underestimated him. As the federal Labor government began to wind down regulation and the public sector in the 1980s Carr proceeded to rally the party faithful in New South Wales with atavistic appeals ("Hands off the people's assets!"). Muckraking, the lifeblood of any state Opposition Leader, was legitimised when Liberal Premier Nick Greiner set up an Independent Commission Against Corruption. Carr finally proved his political manhood by defying Graeme Richardson and supporting the establishment of ICAC. Cultivation of the media (a journalistic training and contacts paid off handsomely) and a careful strategic seats strategy enabled Carr to scrape across the line in 1995.

Sadly mediocre in the key areas of urban planning and transport policy, Carr has won credibility on the policy front in government through his record in looking after the natural environment. Carr's stance on the environment appeals to middle-class voters whose support can be added to a working-class base which Carr has consolidated by pushing the right law-and-order buttons during eight years in office. Overseas vacations hobnobbing with literary celebrities such as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal make the mundane treadmill of state politics almost bearable.

The machinations recorded by West and Morris climax in an epilogue where the authors report on a meeting between Carr and prominent head-office identities John Della Bosca and Eric Roozendaal. Polling results are bandied about as Carr, newly re-elected as NSW Premier, is urged to go federal.

The NSW Right, battered in recent years, is seeking a comeback by capitalising on the once-despised Carr's hat trick of election victories. The skinny nerd of yesteryear is now being marketed by factional powerbrokers as Labor's Charles Atlas. This relationship between an Australian egghead and a cynical political machine is an odd coupling indeed but it has lasted for four decades and remains a dynamic element in Australian politics.

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About the Author

Stephen Holt is a Canberra-based historian.

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