In the frontline of the war against boredom
Monday 28 April 2014
Bob Carr is touring St Petersburg on his last day as Australia’s foreign minister. There’s a six-hour time difference between Sydney and this part of Russia so he’s enjoying the sunshine while Labor is assessing the size of its loss on the night of the 2013 federal election. It’s the first national election he’s missed since 1963, but as prime minister Kevin Rudd’s delegate at the G20 meeting he finds himself outside the Lenin Museum receiving texts from parliamentary colleagues back home.
First there’s news that Labor’s Matt Thistlethwaite is holding Peter Garrett’s seat of Kingsford Smith. Carr enters the museum to hear that Michelle Rowland is winning in the seat of Greenway. He’s near the room where the Communist Party official Sergei Kirov was assassinated and learns that Jason Clare, Tony Burke and Chris Bowen have all been returned.
It’s a rich juxtaposition that draws on Carr’s love of Russian history and literature, as well as his own past as a self-described “anti-Leninist” in Labor’s NSW Right. He never guessed he’d be in Russia at this moment, but in another sense this is exactly how he expected his term as Australia’s foreign minister would end. Not even those momentarily euphoric polls after Rudd’s return to the prime ministership had deluded him that he would get more than eighteen months in the job he had coveted all his adult life. It’s a moment tinged with personal pathos, as he contemplates the life of ordinariness before him. No more tête-à-têtes with world leaders. No more of the beloved diplomatic dispatches full of international gossip to read and savour each day. No more soaring above the mundane.
But it’s a moment of vindication too. As news comes in from Sydney, Carr is reassured that the ugly ousting of Julia Gillard was worthwhile. By allowing the return of Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party has averted near-oblivion. It has left the party a base on which to rebuild.
Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister is many things. It is more than a catalogue of complaints about business-class travel and bad food. It is more than the self-absorbed musings of a man obsessed with organic oats and his own obliques — although it doesn’t disappoint on these fronts. It is 477 pages long, so it’s more than a gripe about the Melbourne Israel lobby and its hold on the Labor Party’s Victorian Right — an analysis that might be right but simply isn’t proved. It is, in short, much more than the sum of the coverage from those sections of the Murdoch press that hounded Labor from office and can’t find a civil word to say about it.
The diary is a voyage through the whirl and plod of international relations. It circles the planet numerous times, taking us in and out of the loci of Australia’s national — and Carr’s personal — interests. One minute we’re at a conference in Jakarta, the next at a bilateral in Geneva, before a briefing in Abu Dhabi and a meeting in New York. The pace is wearying, sustained by sleeping pills to combat jetlag. There are meetings of AUKMIN and AUSMIN and all the other acronyms that make up the architecture of international diplomacy. There are encounters in extraordinary places, with Prince Charles at Highgrove, where Camilla is seen briefly through the window, wearing galoshes; with Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who has been foreign minister of Saudi Arabia for nearly forty years; and with the equally maniacal exercise fanatic, General David Petraeus, in the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia.
Carr’s diary is also an insider’s account of what it takes to secure a seat on the UN Security Council. This becomes a quest, a raison d’être, for his first year in office, but it’s a poor substitute for a substantial policy objective. Carr doesn’t stop to explain why Australia is so driven to secure the spot, particularly when he must know that he’ll be handing a magnificent prize to the Coalition when it takes over. But it’s the big idea of his predecessor, Kevin Rudd, so Carr’s task is to deploy the skills of a party numbers man to amass, and then to hang on to, the votes of UN ambassadors across the globe. At one point, he calls Aurelia Frick, the foreign minister of Liechtenstein, to congratulate her on the birth of her son. He makes small talk before asking for her country’s vote. It is as shameless as that. But she seems to climb on board regardless.
It is also an insight into the Foreign Minister’s Club, the collection of the world’s external affairs ministers who meet regularly in various forums and who become so well-known to each other that they can avert international catastrophes by picking up a phone for a quick chat. Carr quickly strikes up close friendships with his counterparts. For example, on several occasions he flies via Singapore so he and Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam can discuss regional issues over a curry. But it’s the “super-urbane” Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia who emerges as Carr’s favourite.