Bob Carr should leave home fires to someone else
JULIA Gillard has been rightly criticised for her poor judgment.
There are too many examples to list, but they include her farcical announcement of an East Timor processing centre for asylum-seekers; her citizens’ assembly that sank without trace; her panicked decision to suspend live-cattle exports to Indonesia; her introduction of the carbon tax that she promised would not be introduced; her lax oversight of the heavily rorted school building program; and her support for disgraced MPs Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson.
Even though I initially thought it a good idea, another poor decision was her appointment of Bob Carr as Minister for Foreign Affairs. It is now clear that his inflated overconfidence has led to embarrassing blunders. As Foreign Minister, Carr should make an effort to rise above the daily political battles, but he spends as much time casting slurs on Tony Abbott and the opposition as he does talking about international relations.
A disturbing precedent was set on March 13, his first day in the parliament, when Carr was asked at a press conference about the killing of Afghans by a rogue US soldier and whether the soldier should face charges. He initially expressed concern about the loss of life but then launched into a low-rent attack on Abbott by describing him as a “cheapskate hypnotist in a rundown circus”.
It was a rehearsed line that Carr seemed desperate to get out but he showed appalling judgment by delivering it in the context of questions about Afghanistan, where so many Australian soldiers have been killed.
Carr’s decision to intervene in the Slipper-James Ashby sexual harassment court case was a serious lapse of judgment when he said, “This Ashby seems more rehearsed than a kabuki actor.”
Another blunder occurred just 48 hours after his appointment: in response to a question about the potential for a delayed election in Papua New Guinea. he said: “You’ve got Australia placed in a position where we’d have no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea. We’d be in a position of having to consider sanctions.”
This outrageous overreach reverberated around the region and beyond. It indicated that Carr’s instincts were to not only bully smaller, developing nations but also to directly interfere in their internal political affairs.
Reportedly shaken by the backlash to his remarks, Carr compounded his error in his statement on March 16 that said: “As I said to (PNG) foreign minister (Ano) Pala in my telephone conversation yesterday, my recent comments have been misunderstood and used out of context.” Rather than admit that he had made a mistake and apologise, Carr demonstrated to the region that when under pressure he would resort to a disingenuous claim that he had been taken out of context, which was clearly not the case.
A raft of other errors, including multiple references to 5500 Australian troops in Afghanistan rather than the 1550 deployed, can be put down to a cavalier attitude to his briefings. Carr’s suggestion that it would be desirable for the Taliban to be part of the Afghan government was not taken seriously. However, his musing that the Syrian conflict might be resolved by the assassination of President Bashar al-Assad was dangerously reckless. For our Foreign Minister to contemplate the assassination of a head of state, without regard for the consequences, in a highly volatile nation in a conflict-ridden region, is deeply disturbing.
Carr threw the book on consular assistance out the window in June when he flew to Libya in an attempt to intervene in the case of Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, who had been detained while working in the country on behalf of the International Criminal Court. There were constant media interviews as he used the issue to grandstand, in an apparent breach of longstanding policy regarding consular matters.
This set a precedent that will dog Carr during his tenure as Foreign Minister. It quickly came back to haunt him when Australian Alexandra “Pippi” Bean was detained in Libya in September. Her family understandably called for Carr to provide the same level of support Taylor had received and that he fly to Libya to negotiate Bean’s release. Carr claimed that Bean’s circumstances were less serious and refused to travel to Libya, with Bean declaring she felt abandoned by the government.
Carr now has to justify his failure to personally intervene in every case where an Australian is in trouble overseas. He will have to provide constant updates about their welfare, otherwise it can be claimed that he chooses to intervene only in consular cases that boost his media profile.
Carr’s justification for taking his wife on all official trips overseas was: “I’m proud that Helena has accompanied me on every trip I’ve done. Because while I’m talking to the foreign minister, she’s inspecting aid projects or talking to groups of women.
“In every stage in our bid for a UN seat it was an advantage for the Australian Foreign Minister to be accompanied by a wife who was born in Malaysia, of Indian and Chinese parents.” The only thing that saved him from howls of protest from leftist feminist groups was their overt bias towards Labor.
Part of Carr’s problem is that he is Labor’s media gun, willing to comment on virtually anything. This brings us back to his appointment, when the PM did nothing to manage expectations of how the former NSW premier would perform in the job. Indeed, she lauded his appointment as akin to the arrival of a political messiah. This placed enormous pressure on Carr to be a governmental attack dog for Labor, a role he has adopted as one of the leading character assassins of Abbott.
There is a fundamental contradiction between the duties of a foreign minister and those of a domestic political scrapper. Carr would be well advised to spend more time studying his briefs and less time attacking Abbott and the Coalition through the media.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the political satire ‘Fools’ Paradise’.
The Weekend Australian, November 3 – 4, 2012, Inquirer p 20.