They build a ship each wintertime… A review of ‘Diary of a Foreign Minister’ #auspol

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr visits Laos
Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr visits Laos (Photo credit: DFAT photo library)

If you went to a restaurant and ordered chicken Marsala, you’d be disappointed if the waiter returned with a cup of Marsala, a cup of sherry, and a lump of uncooked chicken.  Similarly, you should be disappointed with Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister.  It’s the ingredients of a book.

The premiss itself is fascinating: a Foreign Minister has released his diary shortly after leaving office.  It’s unheard of.  Ordinarily, historians and policy wonks have to wait decades before getting access to that kind of material even though it’s a foolish way of going about business; what good is it for me to understand the motivations of policy makers a generation ago?

But the novelty set itself up for criticism.  I’ve never before seen a book so thoroughly, viciously, and erroneously lampooned by the public.  Reading the book, I was baffled by the public commentary — News Corp called it ‘The Diary of a First Class Tosser‘ — which regurgitated and recycled out-of-context snippets in order to create a story.

Take, for example, the following from the News Corp story:

Mr Carr also laments travelling in business class during a trans-Atlantic flight.

“Business class. No edible food. No airline pyjamas,” Mr Carr notes. “I lie in my tailored suit.” [Source]

The excerpt comes from a lengthy entry where he’s discussing meeting Hilary Clinton the next day.  To say he was ‘lamenting travelling in business class’ is like saying Obeid ‘did some favours for his mates’.  Carr was complaining that he would look crumpled and tired during his meeting with an important ally.

It’s a theme that emerges often throughout the book.  Carr is expected to represent Australia while jetlagged, exhausted, and uncomfortable.  He is the face of Australia’s diplomatic mission, and yet we handicap his capacity.  This is what he’s complaining about, not the lack of edible food.

This weariness, sleeplessness (he notes how regularly he pops sleeping temazepam; it’s scarily frequent), and exhaustion must have resulted in errors of judgement.  In what he thought must have been a witty remark, he compares the conditions of a flight to the slave trade… twice.  It’s in the same frame of mind that he concocts the ‘Carr Peace Plan’ to release Melinda Taylor from Libyan arrest.  His plan is bold and courageous, but concocted entirely without consultation with his departmental advisers who, understandably, panic.

During the Taylor saga, Carr finally seems like a genuine, caring, thoughtful guy.  Why does he act recklessly?  Because he prioritised the safety of Taylor over everything else.  It preoccupied his thoughts.

Although this preoccupation distracted him from enacting his usual persona (the pretentious, smug, self-satisfied prat), it also revealed that the guy has absolutely no capacity for introspection, nor does he understand how the world views him.  He’s cripplingly insecure — when his opinion about China’s relationship with North Korea is rebutted by an eminent person, he corners her and tells her that his view was based on cables and he’d hate for her to think that he had been naif.  And he doesn’t know how to deal with the political instability of the Gillard Government — resigning himself to the inevitability of defeat (what he terms the ‘Gotterdammerung’), believing that he needed to be somehow above domestic politics as the Foreign Minister.

The result is a diary of a man whose diary you wouldn’t really wish to read.  He’s unlikable and remains so throughout the text, especially when he’s signing his own praises.  His vanity is especially grating.

Had he been wise, he would have given his diary to somebody interesting, somebody with the political insight to edit and annotate the raw ingredients, and turn it into a satisfying meal of foreign policy substance.  Or of ALP history substance.  Of media commentary substance.

It’s difficult not to relive the drama of Ruddmentum in the text — especially shocking was the participation of Kim Beazley (as Ambassador to the US) in the domestic machinations of party politics.  The fact that he was so critical of Gillard’s leadership almost from the beginning of his term was surprising.

And it’s also difficult not to be startled at the undeclared closeness between various columnists and Ministers.  Greg Sheridan is portrayed as a patsy who happily gobbles up Carr’s comments on Burma and who passes off the regurgitated political line as his own insight.  That part was actually revolting.

Yet in this half-baked format, none of those points bubble to the surface and we have to wade through the chewy, indigestible chunks of Bob Carr writing about Bob Carr’s distorted perception of Bob Carr.

At the very least, Diary of a Foreign Minister explains why Thoughtlines was so unreadably bad.

Fans of Bob Carr will love it.  Illiterate media personalities describe it as a ‘tremendous read,’ ‘beautifully written’, and ‘a very, very important book… like the Rosetta Stone… as if an Easter Island statue came to life’ (because it’s fundamentally a book about them).  Gillard supporters will chastise him for breaking Cabinet confidentiality. Coalition hacks will tut-tut.  Most of the responses to this book were clearly pre-determined.

But if you don’t have a hat in this race, wait for the secondary sources on this book.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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