In Conversation With Bob Carr, Minister For Foreign Affairs

It is no secret that Bob Carr is a doyenne of the Labor Party. Premier of NSW from 1995 until 2005, Carr is regarded by many as one of the best premiers in Australian history, and held the NSW office for the longest continuous period to date. In March of this year, following Kevin Rudd’s resignation as Foreign Minister and failed leadership challenge, and the resignation of Senator Mark Arbib, Carr was appointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs and assumed a seat in the Senate.  For Carr, this marked the fulfilment of a life-long ambition to serve as Foreign Minister. For the Government, Carr’s appointment was a way of bringing a highly respected intellect and long-time Labor man into a government with more than its fair share of problems. With a Labor spill widely predicted for next year’s Federal Election it is unlikely that Carr’s term in office will near that of his Premiership. Length, however, is not necessarily an indication of quality, and with the exception of a few early criticisms it would appear that Carr is both respected and highly competent in navigating Australia’s international relationships.

On the day that I speak to Minister Carr he is furiously busy, juggling meetings with multiple Ambassadors with the demands of sitting week at Parliament. His Media Adviser comments that she can’t fathom how he manages to fit as much into one day as he does; the Ministry is an incredibly intense one, and subject to rapid change with diplomatic relations ebbing and flowing on a daily basis. Despite this, Carr is alert, energetic and clearly passionate about his new role.

He describes the transition from State to Federal politics as exhilarating. “I’ve gone from speaking to the annual meeting of the Shires Association to addressing the general assembly of the United Nations; I enjoyed talking to the Shires Association, but it’s nice after ten years of being a Premier and doing things like that to be doing things internationally.”

Whilst the two roles are vastly different, Carr explains that there are some similarities, and his experience as Premier has informed his capabilities as Foreign Minister; “it’s the classic theory of politics that applies at this level as it does in state politics; reconciling differences peacefully, achieving honorable compromises, understanding different approaches… these are the quintessential and perennial challenges of politics, and it’s as true at the national level as at a state level.”

Since coming into office Carr has overseen a tumultuous time in international politics. He has been responsible for pushing for a cease-fire in Syria, and has publicly condemned the actions of the Syrian Government. The Syrian Chargé d’affaires Mr Jawdat Ali was expelled from Australia at the end of May following continued atrocities in Syria, and the Syrian Government’s refusal to engage with the UN brokered ceasefire. He has also been part of international efforts to convince Russia to place sanctions on Syria, a move which many suggest could ease the conflict.

In June, Carr lifted sanctions on Burma which had been designed to specifically punish those responsible for the developing nation’s decades long development hiatus, which was sparked by the rule of a military class which abused power and burnt diplomatic bridges. The April by-election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy Party, was indication to many that Burma is working towards democracy and willing to re-engage with the international community. In addition to lifting sanctions, Carr has committed to providing Burma with over $100 million in aid in the next two years; this will be largely directed into the health and education sectors.

Official relations with Fiji were reinstated just weeks ago, meaning that Australia will have a High Commission in Suva for the first time since 2009, when the Fijian military regime expelled previous envoy James Batley on allegations of interfering with government affairs. This restoration means that Canberra will again play host to a Fijian envoy, who was removed in retaliation for the expulsion of Batley.

Minister Carr’s understanding of international affairs is thorough and complex. When asked what the main challenge facing Australia in regards to foreign policy is, he is quick to cite security; “what can we do to secure Australia and its people decades into the future, when we can’t guess at the sorts of threats we’ll face?”. Carr explains that throughout the history of Australia as a modern nation, with the exception of World War II, we’ve been able to assume the dominance of Western powers to our north. This dominance has been something that, according to the Minister, Australia has encouraged: “We never left the British Empire; the British Empire left us, and we’ve had a good security relationship with America since the early days of the 20th Century counterpoised to the growth of Japanese imperialist ambitions.”

The Anglosphere created by these traditional security relationships is something that Carr sees as being intrinsic to Australian national identity, and often our diplomatic sympathies. However, he recognises that regional security paradigms are “changing very dramatically,” and that we are entering an era where it will no longer be sufficient to assume an easy, effortless Western dominance of areas to our north. With this regional change and development comes cultural shift; Carr suggests that Australian culture is already growing to reflect diverse regional relations, and will continue to do so.

When questioned on Australia’s relationship with China he is quick to say that whilst China is very important, and our relationship with China is robust, it is not the only country in the Asia Pacific region, and not the sole force behind what is popularly coined as the Asian Century. Development of the Asia Pacific region, according to Carr, is contingent on the development and cooperation of all of the countries in the region, including Russia and the United States.

In early August Carr created controversy when a comment he made to American Republic Candidate Mitt Romney was misconstrued to the media – Carr said that America was one step away from banishing talk of economic decline, intending it as a positive remark; the media ran stories saying that Carr had publicly suggested that America was a declining power. Carr’s position on America is far from it being a spent force. He states that Australia’s ties with the United States have traditionally been strong and healthy, and that he believes they can and should continue as such. In regards to China, and the changing relationship between the two as China’s international clout grows, Carr says that he has made it clear to China that America will always have a role to play in Australian foreign policy. This is a position he believes China understands, and is not inconsistent with Australia’s growing ties with the country which is increasingly important to Australian trade and consequently economic stability.

The changing power dynamic between China and the United States is relevant not only to Australian diplomatic relations, but also to the broader Asia Pacific region. All countries must negotiate increased interest by both states in the region as it develops. China is currently engaged in a stand-off with the Philippines over possession of the Scarborough Shoal, a small pacific island located off the coast of the Philippines. International alert was also recently sparked when China stationed troops on the Paracel Islands, the ownership of which it is also contesting, this time with Vietnam. Reasons for interest in the area are clear; the South China Sea is particularly resource rich, promising economic wealth to those who can claim extraction rights. The region is also the one through which most Australian exports pass, meaning that it is highly important for the Australian state that peace in the region is maintained.

Because the region is still young and trade and diplomatic relations are still developing, the situation is delicate. Carr sees Australia’s role as that of “a creative middle power and a good global citizen.” Much of this creativity is perhaps consequent of the complexity which Carr assigns to the region; “there are other stories in the region other than the competition or tension, or the contrast or the cooperation, between the US and China. There’s the great narrative of Indonesia, growing at 6% per annum and a very robust democracy. There’s the story of India and where India will choose to express its power and its perspective in foreign relations.”

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has received significant negative media coverage in the past twelve months. The Gillard Government’s ban on live cattle exports, following the Four Corners expose on cattle abuse at slaughterhouses in Indonesia, drew ire from exporters whose trade it affected, and applause from animal rights activists which was dulled when exports were reinstated but with enhanced regulations. Significant tension has also arisen over refugees, and whether Australia should turn boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesia regardless of dangers. Carr suggests that in spite of these problems Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is strong, and indeed growing. He indicates that the Australian public is too single minded in their conception of the Australia-Indonesia relationship; “I’d challenge Australians to think about more than these transactional issues when we talk about our relationship with Indonesia.”

Our connection with Indonesia, Carr states, is demonstrably positive given the fact that Australia’s largest embassy is in Jakarta, our largest aid packet is given to Indonesia, and there is significant collaboration on police, counter-terrorism and disrupting people smuggling.

Carr believes that Australia is integrating effortlessly into the Asia Pacific, and is excited by the development in the region. He cites a recent trip to Singapore where “Australian business people were talking about Singapore as an economic extension of Australia, and Australia as an economic extension of Singapore.” With the economic growth in the region, Asian Pacific nations are becoming increasingly integrative, according to Carr.

He believes that sufficient architecture is now in place to ensure the continued growth of the region, and constructive policy development. The East Asia Summit, a yearly forum involving the leaders of countries in the region, is one example of this architecture, in particular given the recent inclusion of the United States and Russia. Carr specifies the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as another important regional organisation, and key to building bi-lateral relationships.

It is clear, as our interview concludes and Carr quickly ushers in his next foreign visitor, that he has thrown himself into this new role with unalloyed delight. He openly says of his new job that he “loves all of it”; Australia’s aid program, however, has been an unanticipated revelation, and something of which he is incredibly proud.

For the former New South Wales man, the Foreign Ministry is an opportunity not only to be a statesman, as his respected political history indicates, but to be a statesman at the very highest level.  Bob Carr is no longer the man of an Australian state; he is now the very public face of the Australian state, and enjoying every minute of it.

Tags : Features
Melinda Bladier

The author Melinda Bladier

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