Bob Carr: Ethos was more important than ideology

Tim Soutphommasane, University of Oxford

It has been four months since Bob Carr departed from public office as Premier of New South Wales. It was tempting in the immediate wake of his farewell to speculate whether Carr’s retirement might only be a temporary break before a draft into the federal Labor leadership. But he has remained in the public eye, participating in debates on the environment, national security, and foreign affairs.

History will likely be kind towards Bob Carr.

This should not surprise us, for Carr remains in his prime—certainly too young at 58, and with too much to contribute to the national conversation, to recede into quiet retirement. But despite suspicions about a political comeback, the manner of Carr’s departure carried with it a sense of finality. He held back tearful emotion at the press conference announcing his resignation. And, tellingly, he said goodbye to his private staff on his last day in office with the words, ‘Remember me.’

There was, however, more than a hint of irony in the way Carr announced his retirement. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Carr declared he was retiring ‘with malice for none, with charity for all.’ No sooner had he announced his resignation did the tributes begin. John Howard was quick to criticise the state of the NSW economy under Carr’s watch. Jeff Kennett considered Carr a failed premier, uncommitted to reform. Nick Greiner said Carr was a skilled politician, but an ordinary premier. No doubt Carr saw this coming when he dipped into Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

That so little grace was offered to Carr is at first surprising. Longevity usually guarantees magnanimity, if only grudgingly, from one’s opponents. But with Federal Labor languishing under Kim Beazley’s leadership, and the possibility of Carr parachuting into Canberra, it seemed many Liberals—with the notable exception of Peter Costello—were not taking any chances with generous bipartisan gestures.

One consolation is that history will likely be kind towards Carr. He led the Labor Party in New South Wales for seventeen years, ten of them as premier—the longest anyone has served continuously in that office. Among the achievements during his premiership were the custodianship of the most successful Olympic Games ‘ever’; the retirement of $12 billion of public debt; the creation of 350 national parks; reform of tort law and the police service; and the improvements in literacy placing NSW school students among the best-performing in the world (see Wanna & Williams 2005; West & Morris 2003). Moreover, through his fusion of economic discipline and piecemeal legislative reform, Carr provided a model of success for Labor state and territory premiers across the country.

Still, much has been said about Carr leaving a mixed legacy, about how his Government was all spin and style with not much substance. The day after he announced his resignation, The Australian editorialised that Carr was ‘a genius for politics gone to waste’, suggesting he was ‘a man focused on politics not policy’ (28 July 2005). In a similar vein, The Sydney Morning Herald called Carr an ‘accidental premier’, who was ‘averse to reform’ and led a government the ‘core skill’ of which was ‘its mastery of spin’ (28 July 2005). Commentators in the major newspapers could be found criticising Carr for masking alleged policy shortcomings in areas like health, transport and planning with the headlines of announcements and re-announcements.

Carr certainly was a media performer with a deft touch: no gesture ever out of place, each sound bite authoritatively delivered in that deep, resonant voice. On this count, Carr was a politician par excellence. Yet to suggest there was not much else in his premiership is a misjudgment.

Carr was not driven by a radical reformist agenda.

Unlike Jeff Kennett, the other dominant premier of the last decade in Australia (or, for that matter, John Howard, who was in government for almost the entirety of Carr’s period as premier), Carr was not driven by a radical reformist agenda. He was no ideologue in office, nor did he claim to be. It is instructive that Carr once suggested to me that ‘Ethos is more important than ideology’.

What Carr meant by this was that politics should not be reduced to the pursuit of one’s partisan values. This is not to say that Carr believed one’s ideals and commitments had no place in the political realm. However, he believed not only that political power should be guided by visions of the good, but also that it—more importantly—should be exercised in the right manner or spirit. The distinction between ethos and ideology was, for Carr, one largely between means and ends. Politics was never solely about the ‘cause’ or the ‘movement’ understood as an abstract or ultimate value; it was also important that the method one adopted was in line with the tradition to which one belonged.

In this respect, it would be impossible to understand Carr’s premiership without acknowledging the influence of the figure of William McKell (Premier of New South Wales, 1941–47). Although McKell has been largely forgotten outside Labor circles, his model of moderate, pragmatic government was the paradigm Carr’s own government emulated. As Carr reflected in an interview earlier in May:

McKell put together the political coalition, the political style—better word: the political ethos—that I inherited. That’s the cavalcade I’m part of: the Labor Party forged in 1941, updated by Wran. And if I’d failed to get over the line in 1995 [his first election victory], if I’d failed to put in the performance in 1991 [where he forced incumbent Premier Nick Greiner into a minority government], then that’s the tradition I would have let down, I wouldn’t have measured up to that (Marr 2005).

It is interesting that Carr’s own political approach was foreshadowed in 1978, ten years before he became NSW opposition leader. Still a journalist with The Bulletin, Carr wrote in an article that the Wran Government (in power at the time) would be unlikely to embark on more adventurous policies because of the ‘style’ of the NSW Labor party. As Carr put it, ‘When the Party replaced Jack Lang with William McKell as leader in 1939 it rejected turbulence and bellicosity. The habits of moderation, practised over forty years, persist to this day’ (reprinted in Carr 2002, p. 119). The comment reads like a blueprint for Carr’s own approach to government some two decades later.

This attachment to the McKell tradition helps explain why Carr perhaps did not achieve as much as premier as some might have been expected. The McKell model, based on gradual reform and compromise rather than confrontation (Cunneen 2000; Easson 1988), became Carr’s—just as it had been Wran’s before him. Carr understood well that it has been no accident that Labor has been the natural party of government in NSW state politics, governing for forty-six years compared to the Coalition’s eighteen since 1941 (a dominance not mirrored in any other state in Australia). In any case, he would probably say that the McKell-NSW Labor tradition was more about ethos than it was about ideology.

One can detect a certain stoic discipline and virtue in much of what Carr did.

However, Carr’s own political ethos—that is, his style or approach to politics—involved more than subscribing to the McKell tradition. Carr’s understanding of ethos is about more than the means one should adopt in political life. It extends to ideas about how one’s character should bear upon politics. It is revealing that Carr, on more than one occasion, has said that the meditations of Marcus Aurelius ‘are as good a guide to practical politics as I’ve come across’ (Carr 2002; 2005).

It would be easy to make too much of this. But one can detect a certain stoic discipline and virtue in much of what Carr did. There was, most notably, the intense intellectual life Carr sustained while premier. Often, while travelling in his car to and from an engagement, he could be found studying a ministerial brief one minute, and—true to form—perusing Joyce, Proust, or Goethe the next. One of the tasks Carr gave me in my first week working in his office was to research Schumpeter’s views on intellectuals and politics, and Kissinger’s evaluation of Otto von Bismarck. As with all jokes, there was truth in the moniker ‘philosopher-king’, which Sydney journalist David Penberthy had famously coined for Carr.

Intellectual perfectionism formed one aspect of Carr’s inexorable drive for self-improvement. He was always adding new layers to the Carr persona—even if his interests were sometimes esoteric. Hence the German language classes, the private tuition in how to read the Old Testament. These pursuits were not signs that Carr was getting bored with public office. Rather, they reflected the essence of a man driven, as Carr has himself confessed, to educate himself (West & Morris 2003).

Self-improvement also extended to matters of physical health and well-being. Here, Carr displayed hardened discipline. There were the 5 am starts, the strict diets, the grueling exercise regimes. Quite frequently, staff would be called into Carr’s office to brief him while he was on his walking machine watching the six o’clock news.

Crucially, all of this translated into his political ethos. There was nothing radical or programmatic from Carr because that simply was not his way. Government was much like Carr’s own project of self-improvement—it was not about reinventing the policy template, but rather adding new layers to what was already there. And just as he exercised remarkable discipline in his personal projects, so he showed discipline in his economic management of New South Wales and in his adherence to the McKell-NSW Labor tradition.

All this is to say that Carr, like any interesting personality, is a complex figure. His complexity is compounded by the contradictions of his political achievements. He accomplished much that any politician hopes to achieve—three successive election victories, and a departure while still at the top and at the time of his own choosing—yet he left office with unfulfilled ambitions. Circumstance and fortune conspired against him realising his hope to become a Labor foreign minister. And perhaps his own doubts prevented him from becoming Federal Labor leader and completing the transformation from accidental premier to accidental prime minister.

Perhaps his own doubts prevented Carr from becoming Federal Labor leader.

Carr can find solace in the words of his hero, Marcus Aurelius, who wrote that the role of the wise man is to ‘accept without resentment whatever may befall … to be serene, to be simple’ (quoted in Carr 2002, p. 3). And he can be satisfied with the some of the first drafts history has offered about his political career. In their 2003 biography, Andrew West and Rachel Morris wrote that Carr:

in one sense, has bested Roosevelt, about whom Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Second-class intellect, first-class temperament.” Carr, by any measure, has a first-class intellect, and by the measure of three election victories, he must surely have proven a first-class political temperament (West & Morris 2003, p. 372).

Yet West and Morris also wondered at the time whether there might be new challenges for Carr to face, whether ‘Robert John Carr may yet have his own rendezvous with destiny’ (West & Morris 2003, p. 372). One still wonders, now, what the next chapter of his journey of self-improvement might reveal. Perhaps like William McKell, whose footsteps as NSW premier Carr studied so conscientiously (and who later served as Governor-General), he might assume an elder statesman role in the nation’s life; or perhaps he might, unencumbered by the burdens of public office, take up a role as one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals. One thing is certain: even if he does not pursue politics on the national stage, Bob Carr is likely to remain very much a public man. He may, in this sense, have already fulfilled his destiny.


‘A genius for politics that went to waste’ (Editorial), 2005, The Australian, 28 July.

Carr, B. 2002, Thoughtlines: Reflections of a Public Man, Penguin, Camberwell, Vic.

Carr, B. 2005, Transcript of interview with Mark Colvin, ABC Ratio National (PM), 24 May [Online], Available: [2005, Dec 15].

Cunneen, C. 2000, William John McKell: Boilermaker, Premier, Governor-General, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Easson, M. 1988, McKell: The Achievements of Sir William McKell, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Marr, D. 2005, ‘Holding the fort’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May.

‘The legacy of an accidental premier’ (Editorial), 2005, The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July.

Wanna, J. & Williams, P. (eds) 2005, Yes, Premier: Labor Leadership in Australia’s States and Territories, UNSW Press, Sydney.

West, A. & Morris, R. 2003, Bob Carr: A Self-Made Man, HarperCollins, Sydney.

Tim Soutphommasane was a speechwriter to Bob Carr. He is currently a Commonwealth Scholar at Balliol College, the University of Oxford, where he is doing postgraduate research in political theory.

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