Bob’s Back

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posted | in Feature Article

Election night 1995: In the Opposition Leader’s poky office in Macquarie Street. Bob Carr sat alone amid stacks of media releases, wondering if seven years of relentless campaigning had been for nought. It was a revealing contrast to his jaunty, defiant public claim to the nerves of a u-boat commander. The truth was only a few busloads of votes stood between Bob Carr and political oblivion as a washed up, two-time loser in the relative backwater of NSW politics while his friends Keating, Brereton and Richardson had enjoyed stellar Federal parliamentary careers. However, thanks to an astute marginal seat campaign, and Labor’s brilliant recapture of its heartland electorates in 1991, Bob’s fears were needless. His 10-year reign as the longest continuously serving Premier of NSW had begun.

Sometimes the best insight in a political leader comes from their time outside government. Menzies going away to ‘bleed awhile’. Nixon’s refusal to challenge the legitimacy of Kennedy’s election. Whitlam’s journey to China in 1971. Such moments, freed of the props of office, measure the quality and class of a politician.

For Bob Carr, this moment came in 1988 – a year that defined the future course of his time in public life. Labor had just suffered a humiliating defeat and Carr had been forced to sacrifice his federal ambitions to the needs of the NSW Labor.

First and foremost in that decisive year, Carr backed the formation of ICAC against the judgement of many of his colleagues. He supported Greiner’s introduction of the Basic Skills Test, now NAPLAN. He gave a gracious speech of welcome to Prime Minister Thatcher that affirmed the power of oratory in the age of 10-second grabs.

At the 1988 State Conference, Bob stood up and defended the best of the Wran-Unsworth legacy, a step both decent and shrewd. In that same speech he warned of the dangers of a looming environmental catastrophe called the ‘greenhouse effect’ which we now know as climate change.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, he made repeated trips to the Hunter and Illawarra, sometimes standing on a milk crate outside factory gates, reconnecting with voters the ALP had just
lately lost.

Everything you need to know about Bob Carr can be found in the actions and decisions he undertook in that Bicentennial year.

Bob’s appointment as Foreign Minister has given renewed impetus to the Gillard Government, and it is not surprising that our conservative opponents should in response attempt to diminish his vivid legacy as a reforming, activist State Premier.

Campbell Newman is the latest pet shop galah to squawk criticism of the Carr legacy, his comments providing a window onto the envy that conservatives show when Labor succeeds in government. Witness the concerted campaign by right-wing ideologues to deny Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan credit over their handling of the GFC.

The truth is our State and Territory Labor governments long ago developed a creative synthesis of prudent fiscal management, effective service delivery, strong justice policies and informed advocacy of emerging social and environmental issues dating back to the days of McGowen, Holman and TJ Ryan, through McKell, Forgan Smith to Reece, Dunstan, Wran and Goss.

Bob Carr reinvented this tradition to meet the demands of the 24-hour media cycle and the age of culture wars, inspiring an extraordinary generation of leaders along the way – Beattie, Bacon, Bracks, Stanhope, Martin, Gallop and Rann.

The term ‘professional politician’ so often evokes an image of someone smoking a Montecristo with one hand while shovelling mouthfuls of chow mein with the other in some Sussex Street backroom.

But for the very best practitioners, professional politics is a craft built on deep respect for the democratic process. A craft that demands regard for its peculiar skills and disciplines. A craft doggedly honed over years and decades. And Bob Carr is foremost a craftsman.

That’s why he undertook the voice coaching, the acting classes, the exercise regime, the early bedtimes. He even had a hair transplant – what he archly termed his best conservation decision – because he didn’t want external quibbles to get in the way of the message. In the world of the political professional, there is never a day when you become so good that further improvement isn’t necessary.

Bob even had the respect to be nervous and sleepless the night before a major address like State Conference or a significant media engagement. He even considered polling day to be a ‘sacrament’. Bob knew he was playing in the big league and never took it for granted.

When Carr came to office in April 1995, a protracted recession was still easing and Bob knew that economic responsibility must form the basis of his government’s credibility and success.

As it turned out, there was only ever one Carr budget deficit – the first, itself inherited from the outgoing Fahey Government. The State’s AAA credit rating was repeatedly confirmed year after year.

Debt was not ‘racked up’ as Campbell Newman so desperately claims. Rather all the general government debt accrued by the Greiner-Fahey administration – $10 billion worth – was paid off in full and the best ever Olympic Games were funded upfront without the debt overhang typical of most Olympics. As for Newman’s shrill claim that Carr ‘really crippled the state’s economy with new taxes and charges’, Payroll Tax was cut from 8 to 6 percent.

Newman claims Bob didn’t build infrastructure, conveniently ignoring the fact that during the Carr era, NSW infrastructure investment was 33 percent higher (in real terms) than the average for the 1990s and 66 percent higher than the average for the 1980s.

Projects undertaken include M5 East, the M4 widening, the Eastern Distributor, the Lane Cove Tunnel, the Cross City Tunnel, the M7 and the busways, to say nothing of local projects like the Woronora Bridge or the dozens of hospitals rebuilt like Tweed Heads, Lithgow, St Vincent’s, Blacktown, Campbelltown and Queanbeyan.

It was a well-run government. Decent nominations were made to high office like Professor Marie Bashir as Governor and Jim Spigelman as Chief Justice, alongside many astute bureaucratic appointments. Cabinet processes were sound. Paperwork flowed. Advice was sought and taken. There was strong respect for the professionalism of the public service.

Importantly, there was an effective leadership team built around the troika of Bob Carr, Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge and Treasurer Michael Egan. Power was delegated to Ministers. Good ideas were encouraged. Most importantly, there was a strong ethos and esprit de corps.

Barry O’Farrell’s floundering despite an historic majority gives some insight into just how hard it is to be a modern premier. Bob Carr simply made it look easy, but it wasn’t. The Carr Government’s 10 years of good governance for the people of NSW was no accident.

Lists of achievements always risk being boring. Fans know them. Enemies dispute them. And historians never agree on them. But it’s worth retelling the highlights of the Carr years since Bob’s appointment as Foreign Minister has occasioned a renewed assault on his legacy.

To read the extended feature article subsribe to voice by clicking here.