Former politician Bob Carr recently made headlines with his book Diary of a Foreign Minister. I chatted to Carr about copping flak in public, doing pilates and those airline pyjamas.
Your recent book caused quite a stir. Did you think it would be a bestseller?
No. Politics? Foreign policy? But I see now how it worked. I think it worked because it was a diary. Diaries and journals work because they show you how someone is living his or her life. They’ve got an immediacy and personality … They capture you getting things wrong. That’s what makes it interesting.
When you decided to write a book, were you always planning to publish a diary?
I thought, the fact is, I was going to be on this job for 18 months and here I’ve got an opportunity to share – with the Australian people and historians – what it’s like working inside a government, how foreign policy gets made.
Were you ever nervous about publishing a diary and being so open?
If people say it’s unethical, indiscreet, risky, I simply agree. It’s all those things, but it’s a darn good read.
You’ve been labelled a tosser and a wanker. How does that make you feel?
Well, I knew precisely the effect it was going to have: that it would generate great curiosity about the book. So, when I was in Canberra last week, I noticed that half the cadets in Defence and an army of young officials from Treasury turned up at a lecture I gave at ANU and queued to have me sign their books. One day in the city, two guys at the gym and two people on the street between the gym and the office said to me they were reading the book, so I’ve had very funny feedback.
You made headlines about the complimentary pyjamas. Was that all part of the strategy?
I knew the publisher had to have a big dose of personality … I served to that with the references reaching self-parody. There are only half a dozen of them in the book and people cherry-pick those. But, as I said in the end, there were people buying the book because it got front-page tabloid attention, in a way no books on foreign-policy people would.
Were you nervous to add these explosive parts in the book?
I imagine it would be for some people, but if you had my experience, and getting out of bed and hitting radio to put your case, it doesn’t intimidate. In fact, it’s all fun, it’s all salesmanship. The day it hit those front pages, I felt I had done over 20 radio interviews plus a press conference, and then the next morning, 24 hours later, did every morning TV program – even demonstrating an exercise routine!
You talk about fitness throughout your diary. What is your fitness regime?
I visit once a week to the Pilates studio, and doing it on the floor at home. I love it … I feel so much better after exercise. I think when you’re in your 60s, you’re sort of sitting across the table from the Angel of Death playing a chess game and you might as well give yourself some advantages.
There has been so much controversy lately about political donations. Do you think donors get privileges?
There is an episode in West Wing where Alan Alda’s character plays a Republican senator and one night he is in a car going to a big fund-raiser in Washington and his assistant reminds him that he’s going to the Senate and vote down whatever this lobby wants him to do. He says, “Listen, if you can’t eat their food, drink their drink and take their money and then vote against them, you don’t belong in this business.” …To put that simply, fund-raising is a necessary part of the process, but you should be able to judge issues on their merit and, on merit, vote down the interests of the people who have contributed to your campaign. They have an opportunity to present their case, but if their case is a weak one, no campaign contribution is going to work them a miracle.
What is your biggest career highlight from your time in politics?
I think there was one day as premier when I signed off saving the south-east forests, which I had promised to do. And we announced four-unit English for the HSC. I thought: given one day, we can deliver for the environment and deliver for literacy, this is the finest job in the world.
Do you have any regrets?
The only one: I was visiting Goulburn jail and from deep inside a cell I heard an angry prisoner rasp out the message: “Do something about the cockroaches, Bob.” And I don’t think I ever did. I condemn myself for not issuing a directive.
Do you miss your time in politics?
Surprisingly little … Sometimes I’m in knots because I think my side is selling its case poorly, and then I remember how many mistakes I made when I was a fledgling opposition leader. I’ve got to slide myself out of that space and into new territory.
Will there be another book?
I think so … I think some of the lessons out of my time as premier, but not a tedious political memoir. I’ve got to think about a fresh way of discussing issues.
Will it be another diary?
No. Well, I’ve got a safe full of diaries from the time I was premier, but they involve so many people, so many controversies, I’d rather not publish them; draw on them, but perhaps leave them to the historians. I only started [keeping diaries] when I went into state politics. I’m so glad I did. There are some volumes that read like a thriller.
WE WENT TO Aria Restaurant, Macquarie Street, Sydney CBD.
WE ATE Roasted scallops with Coorong pipis, calamari, celery and hazelnut oil; Murray cod with mascarpone, fennel, verjus and semi-dried salted grapes; Ranger’s valley flank steak with slow roasted carrots, red mustard leaf and xo sauce.
WE DRANK sparkling mineral water and tea.