Where Bob Carr found his voice and poetry

As I predicted in a previous post, helping to produce a weekly television program means I have less time for my blog. But one of the joys of working on a show like The Observer Effect is watching politicians like Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr talking to our host, Ellen Fanning. So I thought I’d published the transcript of the interview which was broadcast last night on SBS1 and let you judge for yourselves. Here’s part one, and, a warning, it’s long. I’ll publish parts two and three soon, and SBS will publish on their website shortly (On Demand) a video of the show, which also features a fascinating interview with broadcaster and writer Wendy Harmer.
ELLEN FANNING: Good evening, and welcome to the Observer Effect viewing the events of the week through the eyes of the people who shape Australia. Our Observer tonight, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr on why he’s looking to the Greek god of fortune to save Labor come election day. And smart, funny successful, find out what makes Wendy Harmer cry.
(Opening titles with music)
Bob Carr would have to be about the longest serving Labor political leader in Australia, Federal or State. He joined the ALP when he was just 15, that is over 50 years ago, back in the days of black and white TV when Australia had a population of 11 million people. Now, a senator for New South Wales, and Australia’s Foreign Minister, he is simultaneously an author, a student of great literature and an opera buff. Bob Carr, thanks for joining us.
BOB CARR: Pleased to be with you.
ELLEN FANNING: There’s been a lot of talk this week about scripted political lines. Now, you’re a man who loves words. What are the greatest words you’ve ever had to deliver?
BOB CARR: I think speaking at a commemoration for the Australian dead in Bali. I think that was that was a major challenge. It was in the Parliament, and on another occasion in a football field and in Coogee
ELLEN FANNING: I remember.
BOB CARR: … in Sydney.
ELLEN FANNING: What did you say?
BOB CARR: I tried, I need to revisit the speech, it was over 10 years ago, but I tried to capture their spirits hovering in the clean air, the spray of the surf around us, as we noted the fact that these were friends parted from us in tragic circumstances.
ELLEN FANNING: So lines, when they come out of your mouth, when they come from the heart like that, really resonate, don’t they?
BOB CARR: Yeah, they do. I think oratory is to a large extent a connection an emotional connection between the words and the audience, and you rarely get that. And, of course, as a political leader you’re forced to speak very often about the mundane, and if you sound flat and boring it’s very often because of the subject you deal with is flat and boring, but when you get invited to speak about a matter of life and death, then then you’re challenged.
ELLEN FANNING: You said one of your great indulgences as premier was your speech writer Bob Ellis. Now, I remember there was an occasion where you had to deliver, and is this true, a speech about the bravest dog in New South Wales that year.
BOB CARR: Yeah, and I, I think like any assignment you should, you should do your best
BOB CARR: … with any assignment.
ELLEN FANNING: This wasn’t one of those mundane occasions.
BOB CARR: Well, Ellis gave me words that elevated it above that.
BOB CARR: And while I was praising this dog, and he was, he was there breathing heavily…
ELLEN FANNING: The dog? (Laughter)
BOB CARR: … at my knees, yep. I said, I outlined the virtues of dogs as a species, and Ellis gave me these words, he said, “Dogs are better people than we are. They’re better humans than we are”, and I
ELLEN FANNING: Straight faced?
BOB CARR: Yeah, and I told the story of how this dog had charged into a burning house to alert and guide his master and the dog seemed to follow every word and he panted even more heartily as I got to the point where I was going to present him with the medal.
ELLEN FANNING: Paul Keating said you have got a voice, you, Bob Carr, have a voice he’d die for. You know, we all watch The Voice on television these days and we watch the development of a person’s voice. You have cultivated yours. Tell me how you did it and why.
BOB CARR: I remember I saw in a theatre program once acknowledgment for a voice teacher, so I tracked her down, I rang her up.
BOB CARR: Yeah, her name was Gina Pirro, and she’d trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She was living with polio, so she became a voice teacher rather than a voice coach rather than an actor, and when I went to her for the first time she said, “You have got a vigorous voice”, she said, “But it lacks vitality”. So she set about the challenge of giving me exercises, poetry and Shakespeare, to put vitality into it and I loved it and she was a very good coach.
ELLEN FANNING: As you know how best to communicate has been a big topic of discussion in Canberra this week. With yet another around for disastrous opinion polls for Labor, Kevin Rudd supported Joel Fitzgibbon didn’t even try to spin it. A couple of hours later, ALP senator Doug Cameron joined in the revolt against the spin doctors and throughout it all, the Coalition’s countdown clock for the election kept ticking down.
Joel Fitzgibbon, Labor backbencher: I brought the manual with me. I’ll see what it says. It says I should say, “Polls come and go, but the only poll that matters is on election day.”
Yvette D’Ath, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change: And the only poll that counts is on election day.
Doug Cameron, Labor Senator: Why should I just take a view that some kid in, you know, in the media department of some Minister or the PMO is telling me what I should say. I mean, this is nonsense.
ELLEN FANNING: Is it nonsense?
BOB CARR: Well, the best lines are those that come unforced and you have got to have some confidence in politics to get to that point. I remember Neville Wran was challenged once. There’d been an awful murder, a nurse murdered in Sydney after being tortured, after being raped, and there was a cry. This was the early 1980s, 1970s. There was a cry for the reinstatement of capital punishment and Neville had to meet that, I think 70 per cent of the people in the wake of Anita Cobby’s murder would have said capital punishment. And Neville Wran had to deal with that. No one would have scripted this line for him, but he said, “Capital punishment would be too good for them.”
BOB CARR: And that diffused it. “Capital punishment would be too good for them.” It sort of met the demands of those arguing for capital punishment by saying, “I agree with you, but let’s think about it.” That technique of agreeing but disagreeing at the same time was perfect. He was he was the master communicator that I recall that I worked with, and, of course, Keating who had the gift, even when he slightly misused a word, he sort of gave it accuracy. He sort of gave it extra force.
ELLEN FANNING: What are you thinking of?
BOB CARR: It’s hard to think of the best example, but sometimes you can get it wrong. When he described the Prime Minister of Malaysia as being recalcitrant, he was reaching for a different word.
ELLEN FANNING: Well, Banana Republic springs to mind.
BOB CARR: Yeah, that’s right, and it technically wasn’t right, and the 24 hours after that, if he could have recast it, he would have used a milder word, but on the historical frame it was the shock the country needed.
ELLEN FANNING: At the same time you’re saying in the 24 hours afterwards he would have withdrawn it. I mean, is that part of the problem here, the fear of saying something wrong forces the modern political class to say, “Well, we best test this line, we best go and do a focus group and ask people what they think, so we can echo back to them what they’re thinking, so that they think we know how they think.”
BOB CARR: You can try too hard and everything you say is flat and dead and dull.
ELLEN FANNING: And is that part of what’s happening to the Gillard government at the moment?
BOB CARR: Oh, no, I mean, Tony Abbott … Tony Abbott’s lines are “Send back the boats”, we know that doesn’t work, the public knows it’s not going to work, they know this is a more complex problem than is incorporated in that simple kindergarten incantation. No, you don’t get away with that.
ELLEN FANNING: But similarly, the only poll that counts is the poll on …
BOB CARR: Of course, of course.
ELLEN FANNING: That’s another silly line, isn’t it?
BOB CARR: No, I learnt a lesson when I got hit with a big complex problem. I was doing something at Byron Bay as Premier in my first term, all of a sudden I got a phone call saying, cryptosporidium and giardia, terms I’d barely heard of, were found in Sydney’s water supply and we had to advise the people of Sydney they couldn’t drink the water coming out of their taps. Well, I was a man in shock. I did a media press conference at the lighthouse above Byron Bay, but it wasn’t adequate. I mean, I got messages from home that there was a demand for me to go back and take control of the crisis. I ended up later that day simply walking into a media conference and saying, delivering the truth. “We don’t know what has caused this. We’re damn well going to find out. Yes, you have an absolute right to be able to trust the quality of the water coming out of your taps, but I have got this legal advice. At the present time it’s not safe to trust it. We’re going to get on top of this and find out.” And again when I justified a difficult bit of policy, a medically supervised injecting room …
BOB CARR: … still the only one in Australia.
ELLEN FANNING: And this is for injecting heroin for heroin users to go to a safe place.
BOB CARR: Get them off the street. Get them off the street and not in a back alley where if there’s an overdose they’ll be gone in a few minutes. I just sat in TV studios like this one and said, “We think it might save lives.”
ELLEN FANNING: Bob, for all your love of words, you did have to engage in sport as the Premier. This week the State of Origin kicked off and punched on with New South Wales clenching the first game, and their captain Paul Gallen grabbing the headlines for hitting Queensland’s Nate Myles, great sporting moment or pure thuggery?
PETER OVERTON NINE NEWS PRESENTER: First blood to the Blues, but what about that punch.
DANNY WEIDLER: In an instant a flurry of fists made him part of Origin folklore. His combination will be used to sell the games for years.
PAUL GALLEN: Now, you look at all the promotions promoting Origin. It stinks. I hope the NRL steps in now and don’t allow that footage to be used to promote the game.
ELLEN FANNING: 80,000 people in that stadium. A lot of them cheering that punch, what does that say about Australian culture, do you think?
BOB CARR: I don’t I don’t know. I don’t know what to say about it.
ELLEN FANNING: Did you watch the State of Origin on Wednesday night?
BOB CARR: No, no, no. I was born without a sporting gene.
BOB CARR: It’s a bit of a disability in Australia. It’s got to be counted as such. I went to these things as a Premier. By the way, we always won the State of Origin when I was Premier. (AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)
BOB CARR: It was the inspirational quality of my leadership that found its way to the players.
ELLEN FANNING: At the same time we saw a young man hit on the streets of Sydney just recently, knocked down with a punch similar to the punch on the footy field, and he’s come around this week,, the Prime Minister’s tweeted her congratulations. An extraordinary story that he recovered from that with a giant scar on his head. Are there mixed messages in our society about how we deal with violence?
BOB CARR: I’m sure there are. Normally normally violence is alcohol fuelled, clearly not on the football field, and I don’t think you can talk about it without talking about the derangement that comes from binge drinking. If you want to put yourself in a risk category of being a victim from violence, go to a bar late at night or hang around a street when the pubs are spilling out.
ELLEN FANNING: And yet you describe Australians as funny, friendly, benign people. How does that reconcile with what we call entertainment?
BOB CARR: I think that description of Australians is right. I mean, I walk around the streets where I live in the eastern suburbs of Sydney or around the city itself. There’s good cheer. It’s a society where people can be darned determined to vote you out, but they’ll treat you with respect. I remember once in the lead up to the 1988 State Election, I was Minister for Environment, we were down for a big defeat, and I was walking up the hill in Maroubra Road near my electorate going home after working in the electoral office, and there was an old chap coming down with a walking stick and I thought, “I’ll give him a bit of charm on the way, that’s one more vote I’ve got in my pocket.” I said, “Good morning, sir. Good morning sir”, and as quick as a flash he said, “It will be good bye on Saturday.” (Laughs) I thought … I’ve always valued that because that … that’s the cheekiness of the electorate, and he knows in his bones that he, not I, is the master.
ELLEN FANNING: Yeah. And do they say that to you when you walk around Maroubra now today?
BOB CARR: No, they don’t.
ELLEN FANNING: They don’t.
BOB CARR: The people? no, people …
ELLEN FANNING: You don’t get the sense that they’re going to vote Labor out?
BOB CARR: Well, clearly we’re behind in the polls, I don’t need to be reminded of that, but what I think what I use that as an example of is the cheerful democratic character of Australia. The people are the masters, they put us in, and as Ben Chifley said, great Labor Prime Minister, “They don’t have to offer a reason for voting you out.”
ELLEN FANNING: What about the Sydney Olympics, is it true you told Andrew Denton that the 100 metre sprint would be made more interesting with an addition of a leopard. (Laughs)
BOB CARR: I made that as a serious point.
ELLEN FANNING: A serious point.
BOB CARR: I said we have got to understand as we cheer our swimmers on that
ELLEN FANNING: Well, they’re running the 100 metres actually.
BOB CARR: Yeah, I understand that.
BOB CARR: I’m just switching to another sport.
ELLEN FANNING: Just to be clear.
BOB CARR: That as we cheered our swimmers on, that a healthy dolphin unloosed into the pool would have done a whole lot better, and giraffes set loose rather in the manner of the Colosseum in Roman days, would have put our runners to shame. I was trying to be … I’m glad Andrew Denton remembered that.
ELLEN FANNING: Also, you know, you write worse of yourself in your diary. “As the beach volleyball dragged on, I plugged in my Walkman and heard a lecture on James Joyce.”
BOB CARR: Yeah. Well, I was going to be there for hours and I’m, like everyone, capable of enjoying the athleticism and watching the competition and learning something. I hate not to be learning anything. I think a day in which I haven’t memorised something or acquired some insight, devoured good words, is a day wasted.
ELLEN FANNING: At the same time, you are a fitness fantatic, you’re a very fit person, and in that way you sort of remind me of Tony Abbott. You’re both very determined in your (laughs) … that’s quite a serious point … in your political life to bring a sense of your best physical self to your endeavours. Do you see that in Abbott, because Abbott, of course, was someone that you tried to recruit for the Labor party.
BOB CARR: Yes. Well, I think anyone who’s doing his cardio, I envy anyone who can do his cardio everyday, I think cycling would be a fantastic challenge. It beats the cross trainer or the stationary bike that I use, but I just think … I just think that after a burst of cardio at the start of the day you feel better all day.
ELLEN FANNING: And what about Abbott, how close did you come to recruiting him?
BOB CARR: I think it was a time when he … he thought some of the traditions of New South Wales Labor were good, but I don’t think it ran very deep. I think it was a momentary, Not even flirtation, but a momentary point of interest. And someone is entitled to do that, to pick up one political brand. I remember when I was very young, when I was 14 or 15 looking at political parties, I wrote to all political parties in Australia to get information on their policies, and they …
ELLEN FANNING: How old were you when you did this?
BOB CARR: 13 or 14 actually.
BOB CARR: I joined the Labor party when I was 15. And all of them sent brochures but the Communist Party sent an organiser who came to the fibro cottage at Maroubra and knocked on the door, but my father gave me a big lecture, he said “Don’t come complaining to me when you can’t get a job.” He said, “Your name will now be on a record. Your name will now be in the files. You’ll be blocked for employment.” I thought, “What have I done?” (LAUGHTER)
ELLEN FANNING: Do you think that Tony Abbott had a similar moment about Labor? Do you think he looks back and guess, “Oh, my gosh, that was too close.”
BOB CARR: Yes, yes, he didn’t get into it. He didn’t get into it, he was drawn to the conservative side. As we all know, he went to the very conservative side, the very right wing side of liberal politics, which is the reservation that I think people have got about an Abbott government now.
ELLEN FANNING: Let’s turn to your portfolio now. The big international news this week was riots in Turkey where a youth protest over some trees in a park turned into a movement that challenged the authority of the Turkish government.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The people are forced into protests organised by extremists.
Nat Sot Protests
Turkish Deputy PM, Bulent Arinc: The display of excessive use of force against the first demonstrators who started this protest with the aim of protecting the environment was wrong. It was unfair and I apologise to my countrymen.
ELLEN FANNING: What are we seeing here? Is this a long slide into authoritarianism for a proud secular country?
BOB CARR: I think all friends of Turkey are concerned about what seems to be happening there, but I think the thing I can say is a Foreign Minister in respect of what’s come out of Turkey is that we trust the government will respect the right of people to demonstrate peacefully, will respect that right, because that is one of the norms of a democratic society. You respect the right of people to gather in protest, and to march in the streets against the policies of their own government. That is normal behaviour in a democracy. It’s what democrats can celebrate.
ELLEN FANNING: And that’s the test, isn’t it? That’s the test of the Prime Minister to see whether he can continues in this vein or whether he does, as you say, respect that basic tenant.
BOB CARR: I think that’s a reasonable thing and it’s a reasonable thing for a Foreign Minister of a friendly country to say, respecting the right of your citizens and demonstrate peacefully against your policies is a democratic norm.
ELLEN FANNING: In October last year, there was a big of kerfuffle that you take your wife, Helena on overseas trips with you. This year is your 40th year of marriage. What does it mean to you to have your wife at your side?
BOB CARR: Well, she’s very useful, but the argument for taking her is that it is strictly within the guidelines, they’re the guidelines and I’d never depart from the inherited guidelines.
ELLEN FANNING: Now, just for clarity, when you say she’s very useful, you mean she’s very …
BOB CARR: On the travel.
ELLEN FANNING: … useful on the … yes.
BOB CARR: On the travel. On the travel she’s been enormously effective of being my eyes and ears in going out to the aid projects that I haven’t got time to see.
ELLEN FANNING: And what does it say when they see an Asian face in a confident Western woman as the Foreign Minister’s wife in the world.
BOB CARR: I think it’s just a subtle reminder that Australia is a multicultural nation.
ELLEN FANNING: Now, Bob, you always have this tendency to make the … to take it away from the personal and into the political, but I must pin you down. 40 years, Helena is watching tonight so be careful, she reminds me of Margaret Whitlam. She’s an accomplished woman. She’s happy to walk a few paces behind you, but I must say occasionally from behind there, there is a roll of the eyes, very affectionate, towards you standing out the front. What has been the secret of your great marriage?
BOB CARR: I think her happy disposition. I think that she’s someone’s who, and I think this reflects the wonderful family she came from growing up in Malaysia. Indian father, Chinese mother, wonderful old Chinese grandmother who didn’t speak English, but .. and had bound feet out of the old China, the pre 1911 China.
BOB CARR: And I think it was almost idyllic. Her mother was a nurse, her father worked in the local hospital, she went to the school run by Irish nuns. It was a very, it was a very, I think a very nurturing way to grow up, and that just re enforced, I think, a genetic disposition of being happy.
ELLEN FANNING: So you have had the great fortune to live your life alongside someone who has brought you happiness everyday.
BOB CARR: Yeah, even when I have been staring at political defeat all those years in opposition, she’d say she said, “Forget it. It doesn’t matter.” In Shakespeare words, “There’s a world elsewhere.”
ELLEN FANNING: We’ll be back in a moment, but first given the week Labor has had, it’s obvious the party and its beleaguered MPs need some help. A miracle fixer who can somehow put the tattered party back together again. Well, pulling through the archives we found our man with a video prepared for the annual Walkley Awards for Australian journalism.
DREW FORSYTHE IMPERSONATING BOB CARR: Hi, I’m Bob Carr and I’m Australia’s Mr Fix it. You want a lawyer rescued from Libya, can I fix it? Yes, I can. You want a seat at the UN Security Council, can I fix it? Yes, I can. You want to stop global warming, can I fix it? Yes, I can. You want the Walkley for the most outstanding contribution to journalism, can I fix it? Yes what do you mean I can’t? I’m Bob Carr.
ELLEN FANNING: After the break we’ll look at some of the things that need fixing and get Bob’s observations on how to repair the damage. We’ll also be watching for our viewers’ observation on Twitter using #observersbs. You can follow us on Twitter @observersbs catch up with us on Facebook and we’ll be right back after the break.

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