Cabinet reshuffle: Bob Carr is a battered feather in the Gillard government’s cap

Gillard has reason to smile, but Carr’s appointment was not easy. AAP/Alan Porritt

Julia Gillard has appointed Bob Carr as Australia’s new Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Carr has had a long career in Australian politics, most notably as Premier of New South Wales from 1995 to 2005.

The Conversation spoke to UNSW political expert Dr Mark Rolfe about what Carr can bring to the new job.

What do you make of Carr’s appointment

It was messy, wasn’t it? But she finally got there.

It looked as though all Labor’s attempts to put the leadership struggle of last week behind them was turning sour again because of clumsy leadership. And Gillard was clumsy in the way she went about getting Carr to Canberra.

It wasn’t “faceless men” who were stopping her, it was the usual problem of the egos and ambitions of senior party people that afflict both governments and oppositions. Prime ministers are not presidential and they have to cultivate support amongst their own party, hence they always have to balance personalities and portfolios.

It seem from newspaper reports that Simon Crean and Stephen Smith were a couple of the people in the way of Gillard’s ambitions for Carr. One would have thought that a leader would have dealt with that before offering him the portfolio.

So, the ructions earlier in this week were distracting from her authority. Ironically enough that may have led Simon Crean and Stephen Smith, if they were the chief objectors, to change course because of the damage to the authority of the prime minister, and it’s the authority of the prime minister which is the key problem for Labor in regaining its popularity over the next 18 months.

Bob Carr adds lustre to her government and to her front bench. He puts Kevin Rudd more in the shade on the back bench. This may have been one of the reasons why Simon Crean and Stephen Smith agreed to this, because on the backbench as the ex-prime minister, Rudd was always going to look like an alternative to whoever was going to occupy the foreign affairs portfolio. Bob Carr, and his considerable standing, checks that move.

When Bob Carr stepped down as premier six years ago, could we have imagined this sort of comeback into federal politics?

It’s been playing around in the media for years, so it’s not out of the blue. Bob Carr has long been touted as a person for Canberra but it’s never eventuated until now.

What can we learn from Carr’s time as Premier of NSW about the way he’s going to do the job of foreign minister?

Certainly on the domestic front he’ll be a good campaigner for Labor come re-election time and that’s votes in New South Wales, which are important.

He also signalled a bit of a shift at the end of the press conference in foreign policy. As much as he glorified Rudd’s achievements, he then said he was going to emphasise the local neighbourhood. He was talking about Malaysia and Indonesia and his connections there and he also mentioned India as one of the rising powers.

One of the criticisms of Rudd was that he was great at grandstanding across the global scene and forgetting his own region. That was coming from Abbott and foreign policy experts. Hopefully we’re going to see Carr building there and also building connections with India. There’s been a good start in rehabilitating the relationship with India, but more is needed, especially to balance the economic relationship with China.

If we can move some of that economic connection from China to India that’s all the better for not having all our economic eggs in one basket.

Bringing in a someone like Bob Carr could be seen as a response to the Coalition bringing in their heavy-hitter Arthur Sinodinos, do you see this as a new trend for filling senate vacancies?

[Sinodinos] doesn’t have much of a public profile. He’s a very accomplished politician and he was a very wise head for John Howard’s office but he doesn’t have the public profile of Carr, nor the campaigning abilities, so there is that difference. Having more experience in the federal party is something that they both have in common.

The comparison between the two is a good point because it does highlight that both parties don’t have great depth of experienced people. Even Gillard and Rudd have only been in parliament since 1998, they’d only been in parliament nine years when they entered government in 2007, without any ministerial experience.

Tell us about Bob Carr’s time as Premier.

He wasn’t a bumptious, aggressive man like Jeff Kennett who played up the idea of a radical who was going to restore Victoria’s fortunes after the so-called disaster of Labor. Kennett was knocking heads and gladly doing it.

Bob Carr, on the other hand, came to power according to what’s often described in this state as the “McKell model” of Labor. William Mckell was premier in the 1940s and later Governor General of Australia.

The McKell idea is of gradualism and moderation in response to the conservatism of New South Wales people, so that’s why Carr didn’t come in sounding the radical like Jeff Kennett, and that’s also why he lasted ten years. But by the end Carr’s popularity was dwindling. He could see the way things were going and he got out at the right time before the disaster of Labor really overcame the party.

There’s an irony in Carr replacing Mark Arbib, because Mark Arbib was one of the power holders in New South Wales who really constrained Bob Carr. Carr didn’t take on the factional leaders like Arbib, Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid.

He insisted on reducing public debt to zero in the state, and he certainly achieved some savings with public/private partnerships but it was at the cost of expanding and replacing much public transport infrastructure. He expanded the number of national parks in the state, which he was particularly keen on as an environmentalist and a bushwalker. He reformed the police, to an extent. He built on the reforms to the police force, which were needed, he reformed tort law to a large extent. So you’ve got a moderate record.

Carr’s appointment is a feather in Gillard’s cap. But the feather is a bit battered.

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