Intelligence from the Big Choko

Tony Smith, The University of Sydney

Bob Carr Thoughtlines: Reflections of a Public Man Camberwell, Viking, 2002 (400 pp). ISBN 0-67004-025-8 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

Bob Carr, the 39th premier of New South Wales, is remarkably adept at confounding prophets and critics. Perhaps the most emphatic illustration of this was the performance of the Labor Opposition in the first election campaign under his leadership. In 1991, Labor was just one term away from the 1988 defeat that ended the Wran era. Defying most predictions, Carr led Labor to within sight of victory and established the platform for Labor’s 1995 return to government.

The publication of Thoughtlines is a challenge to both general critics and political opponents. Readers are justified in adopting a suspicious attitude to the latter-day reflections of people in public life. When prime ministers and parliamentarians have so many opportunities to express their views, book-length memoirs seem unnecessary indulgences. Certainly today’s cynical audiences are inclined to dismiss the political autobiography as bitter fumes emanating from the pyre of yet another self-immolating martyr. The sceptical reception awaiting any politician who dares criticise the media in a memoir was demonstrated very clearly in the hostile coverage of Cheryl Kernot’s (2002) attempt to explain her experience of Labor politics in the period 1997–2001.

Carr’s position vis-à-vis the media contrasts markedly with Kernot’s. Carr has been successful politically and that cannot be achieved without some degree of media support. Although Carr told parliament he had mounted on his office wall a Sydney Morning Herald prediction of his demise at the 1995 election, he has generally managed the press gallery astutely. He knows exactly when to court media approval and when to ignore criticism. As Gough Whitlam says in the Foreword, Carr is the first Labor leader since John Curtin in the 1940s to have a background in journalism. Perhaps that is why he can get away with addressing industry insiders as facetiously as he does in the piece ‘Good evening, reptiles’.

Of course there is more to Carr’s success than his outstanding communication skills. His interest in contributing to public debate over five decades ensures that Thoughtlines differs from most memoirs. While the book is a retrospective, it does not examine the past through Carr’s 2002 spectacles and so avoids the genre’s usual fault of subconsciously editing events to the author’s advantage. These 63 pieces (sixteen on ‘People’, nineteen on ‘Politics’, eleven on ‘Ideas’, six on ‘Places of the Heart’, six on ‘Occasions’ and five on ‘Remembrance of Things Past’) were written over 35 years, beginning with a 1967 pamphlet for the Labor club at the University of New South Wales. Carr comments that the young Carr had the ‘audacity’ to set out a program for Labor renewal, and ‘audacious’ is a fair comment on this publishing venture. Carr notes in the Preface that his opinions stand as written with misjudgements preserved, but he claims these are few. Critics will quickly point out that this is just a selection and the author has claimed the privilege of omitting anything he would prefer forgotten. Such an assessment is not entirely fair, however, because a personal reflection should not be judged by the standards of biography. These pieces are not the complete Carr, but the author’s choice.

These pieces are positive, idealistic and reflective.

The implicit selection criteria suggest some interesting priorities. The pieces are positive, idealistic and reflective. It is a credit to the author that there is so little negativity in these pages. Carr’s most severe attacks on political opponents are directed towards the policies of the Federal Coalition Government, in particular in the areas of Aboriginal reconciliation and industrial relations during the waterfront dispute of 1998. While Carr said (with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek) that he used his position shamelessly to promote his book, no reader of Thoughtlines will conclude that he expects it to work reciprocally as electoral propaganda. It does put the Labor leader on the national agenda, but it seems unlikely voters would be swayed by the mere fact that Carr is a published author and few will change their political opinions having read this collection.

While Carr might not consciously separate what he sees as his intellectual endeavours from his political activities, Thoughtlines is about ideas rather than practical politics. Of the 63 pieces only four are transcripts of speeches given in Parliament, and each of these involves an extraordinary occasion rather than legislative debates. The reality of modern politics is that executive governments have at best an ambivalent attitude to the parliaments that create them and claim the right to call them to account.

Carr’s personal interest in American political history predisposes him to a firm belief in the importance of executive power. He has referred to New South Wales as the New York of Australian politics and to Sydney as ‘the Big Choko’. Six of the pieces about people concern United States Presidents, and he has pondered the advantages of appointing Ministers from outside Parliament. Some journalists have even found a physical resemblance between Carr and Lincoln and referred to him as ‘Abe Carr’, a juxtaposition depicted in some of Alan Moir’s cartoons in the Sydney Morning Herald. On the other hand, as Carr makes plain here, he is opposed to adopting an American style Bill of Rights (‘Enriching the lawyers’) and to an elected chief executive in a coming republic (‘The name above the title’).

Carr’s ‘administration’—to use American terminology—has been extremely skilled and it is clear he has found his niche in executive government. If this has resulted from his study of presidents then it clearly has much to recommend it. While Carr is adept at party politics and parliamentary performance, history will almost certainly remember the period 1995–2002 as one of remarkable stability. In contrast with the Coalition Premiers he succeeded and the Prime Ministers of the period, Carr has maintained his Ministry through good times and bad. Apart from changes forced by the factions after the 1999 election, just one of Carr’s Ministers has had to stand down, and that was due to an inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption into matters dating back to 1994, rather than Opposition point-scoring. Although this stability might seem unexciting, it provides the political basis for sound administration of state affairs and should not be underestimated.

Thoughtlines is about ideas rather than practical politics.

Most of the pieces are genuine reflections and comment rather than exhortations to action. Indeed, while it is clear that Carr is passionate about ideas, the reader needs to look carefully to locate much in the way of emotion in these reflections. In the first selection, he discusses Marcus Aurelius and the ‘inner citadel’ of the mind. From Aurelius, Carr takes a stoicism that enables him to apply an intellectual standard to his situation and perhaps he extends this to others as well. Readers must decide for themselves whether the eyes of Carr depicted on the cover convey compassion or simply intellectual interest. Aurelius’ suggestion that we remember the minuteness of our individual places in history should make our leaders humble, but it should not make them unambitious for the welfare of the people.

While a strong theme of these pieces is leadership and citizenship, they are at best a partial guide to the portfolio areas and content that Carr has been passionate about—the arts, the environment and education. While he does include pieces on Proust and Gore Vidal, more weight is given to his own literary output in the form of three chapters from an unpublished fiction manuscript. It is tempting to advise the premier not to give up his day job, but the writing in the fragments of the novel-in-progress is certainly no worse than in some of the few attempts to produce a genuinely great Australian political novel (see Smith 2001). Besides, it takes some courage to put fiction out there for criticism, and Carr has as much right to express ideas creatively as novelists have to offer advice on public affairs.

As well as book reviews and reflections on political philosophy, Thoughtlines contains pieces that acknowledge the diversity of sources available to the scholar who is prepared to take a broad approach to gathering material. For example, a conference speech Carr wrote for John Ducker, President of the New South Wales Branch of the Labor Party is balanced by a welcoming speech for President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hilary Clinton that was penned by Graham Freudenberg. This latter is a nice touch that acknowledges the important debt owed by any successful parliamentarian to advisers and speechwriters who seldom attract the public praise they deserve. There are snippets too of Carr’s diaries (‘Blewett’s jottings’). These promise to be a rich source of information that will one day bridge the gap between the inner citadel of Thoughtlines and the contemporary politics of state, nation and beyond. Potential psycho-biographers might prefer these pieces to be arranged chronologically so as to trace developments in the author’s thinking, but Carr himself stoically declines to engage in introspection. While he refers to being depressed about social problems such as drug addiction and elated by the natural environment, he speaks about these emotions rather than showing them. As the book’s title suggests, these are the meditations of a ‘public’ man. If others are interested in deep analysis of the private Carr, they will need to look beyond these pages.

Car remains subject to the 'sordid expedients of practical politics'.

Almost every political gamble taken by Bob Carr has paid handsome dividends, and there is no doubt that this publishing venture involves some risk. After reading one negative review, Carr complained that he doubted whether the critic had read Thoughtlines, so it seems even an astute political leader can still be surprised. There are political risks as well.

Coincidentally, Thoughtlines was launched at the 2002 Sydney Writers Festival, where a day earlier Don Watson, who penned many famous speeches, discussed his insider’s account of the Prime Ministerial office of Paul Keating (Watson 2002). The same week in Federal Parliament, Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello used Watson’s account of office gossip to attack Opposition Leader Simon Crean and lambast Labor members as ‘Creanites’. An election is due in New South Wales in 2003, so Liberal parliamentarians and staffers are likely to comb Thoughtlines for any comment that could be used against Carr. This witty premier would appreciate the irony in a situation where his ideological foes are his most voracious readers.

During the 1995 election campaign in which Bob Carr secured the premiership of New South Wales, a perceptive journalist wrote of ‘the Carr Enigma’. This phrase captures well the difficulty of describing this unusual man who has proven himself a stubborn survivor of internal Labor Party politics, a sound administrator, a popular leader and yet someone who loves the uncertain and unforgiving world of ideas. Carr’s desire to be remembered as ‘the education premier’ is consistent with the drive to publish his own thoughts. Carr describes Thomas Jefferson as a ‘polymath’ and argues that ‘few minds in history are more accessible’ (‘Jefferson repersecuted’). Promoting the intellectual development of schoolchildren is an admirable ambition, but his contribution will of course be judged according to the condition in which he leaves schools in the state, and public schools in particular.

One theme that emerges from the writings is Carr’s understanding that leaders are forced to respond to events and seldom have the opportunity to plan and deliver change according to their own priorities. He makes this observation about both Lincoln and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. This could explain why Carr has not been able to shape his policies precisely according to the ‘critical intelligence’ identified by Gough Whitlam in the Foreword. Rather, to his frustration perhaps, Carr, like Thomas Jefferson, remains subject to the ‘sordid expedients of practical politics’.


Kernot, C. 2002, Speaking for Myself Again: Four Years with Labor and Beyond, HarperCollins, Pymble.

Smith, T. 2001, ‘Politicians with neither power nor glory’, Australian Quartlery, vol. 73, no. 4, pp. 36–39.

Watson, D. 2002, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Random House, Milsons Point.

Tony Smith teaches Australian Politics in the School of Economics and Political Science at The University of Sydney.

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