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Bob Carr should leave home fires to someone else

3 November 2012 1,643 views 3 Comments

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.
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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.

3 Comments »

  • Brett said:

    As a minister of the crown and an elected, well paid servant of the people of Australia, we all have a right to expect for Bob Carr to be on top of his brief as a foreign minister and to execute that task with skill and care. Getting international diplomacy wrong can ultimately cost Australia dearly. A foreign minister who acts capriciously by treating like cases differently, or who is self preening and bellicose, will diminish the trust the international community places in us. At a bare minimum, the Foreign Minister, the Trade Minister and the Attorney General should not be used by the Prime Minister as attack dogs on tawdry politics like the James Ashby affair. The power of the words and actions of these ministers is far reaching.

  • Bob Carr said:

    ROSS Fitzgerald’s criticisms could be ignored but some are so sloppy it would be better to set the record straight (“Carr should leave home fires to someone else”, 3-4/11).

    First, he says my instincts are to bully developing nations. This is rebutted by the fact such nations, including Papua New Guinea, overwhelmingly favoured Australia in the UN Security Council ballot.

    Second, no policy on consular cases was breached in the case of Melinda Taylor, the International Criminal Court lawyer detained by militia in Libya. Our intervention helped bring the court and the Libyan government to an accommodation that enabled Taylor to go free. Alexandra Bean, who lived in Libya, received immediate assistance.

    Third, on the possible assassination of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, I simply answered a question in an interview about the circumstances in which the regime in Damascus might lose support and enter negotiations. My comments followed the assassination of the Syrian defence minister in July.

    Fourth, Fitzgerald shows his ignorance when he isolates a comment I made about whether the Taliban might ever be included in a government in Afghanistan. As President Barack Obama said in May: “We are pursuing a negotiated peace … my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We’ve made it clear they can be a part of this future if they break with al-Qa’ida, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws. Many members of the Taliban … have indicated an interest in reconciliation.” This view has also been expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

    Bob Carr, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Canberra , ACT

  • Josh Frydenberg said:

    ROSS Fitzgerald is right about Bob Carr’s performance as Foreign Minister. Carr’s heavy-handed approach to diplomacy has alienated many in the region.

    But those who read Carr’s blog prior to his appointment as Foreign Minister will not be surprised. On this blog he described the Dalai Lama as a “cunning monk”, was circumspect about President Barack Obama’s speech to the Australian parliament calling it “strange” and “inappropriate” and went on a tirade against the Republican candidates for president.

    His descriptions of Newt Gingrich as a “mad professor”, Rick Santorum as someone who “lusts for war” and Mitt Romney as “bloodless” were not only insulting and undiplomatic but stupid. Were Romney to be elected president this week, Carr’s ability to engage him and his administration will be severely compromised.

    I only hope an election is called sooner than later, so that Carr can be stripped of his duties and Australia’s national interests advanced once again.

    Josh Frydenberg, federal Liberal member for Kooyong, Melbourne, Vic

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