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The Neville Wran I knew

April 22, 2014

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, April 21.

He gave a lot away in a talk when I was stumbling in my first years as Premier. We stood in the sun at Greenwich to witness harbourside land being handed over for public park, one of his pet enthusiasms. He looked at the crowd and gave me advice: “They’re all happy … that’s the secret. Just give them what they want – it’s easy.” Later he said “Think about that day at Greenwich. Sure they’re never satisfied but who cares? Forget the budget, just spread bread on the waters.”

“Spread bread” was pure Wran.

I admired him most in the toughest phase of his dazzling career, after his 1984 re-election – his fourth and what he called “the sweetest ever” – when the climate soured and mere pub gossip got aired as allegation. I loved his striding performances in the Legislative Assembly when he forensically shredded the mad notion that something called ‘the Age Tapes’ hovered above him. As he fought back I thought of Billy Joel’s lyrics to 1985′s You’re Only Human: to us he was the figure in the song, “the boxer in a title fight” who had to walk into the ring all alone. We knew he’d made mistakes; but who else could pull a primary vote of 57 per cent?

One approach to Labor’s challenges is to tinker with structure – a bit more for the branches here, a bit less for the unions there. There is a different approach – to focus not on structure but ethos and leadership. The ALP, like the conservative parties, is improvised and cobbled together. What animates and unites any ramshackle old party is clever, crafty leadership; winning speeches and punchy one-liners to lift its spirits and direct scorn at its opponents. Wran of course exemplifies the leadership principle; making it up as you go along if it’s done with flair, intelligence. And if it’s entertaining.

His distinctiveness owed a lot to the working class, 1940s inner-city world. Rod Cavalier recalls him talking about criminal gangs firing from the back of a truck “like Tom Mix”. I once heard him refer to old-fashioned opponents in the cabinet as the “plug uglies”. When I told him that he’d need his hiking shoes for an inspection we were making of Kosciuszko he said, “Well what did you expect me to take – my dancing pumps?”

When he stepped down in 1986 he said his proudest achievement was beating the Liberals. This was perverse modesty. And later he volunteered his greatest achievement was saving the rainforests of Northern New South Wales which married Labor politics to nature conservation and – followed Federal and State – produced a rich inheritance for future generations.

If he put votes before economics – “just give them what they want” – there were no financial catastrophes or bank failures and his spending as a share of state product was the most cautious of any state. Return always to the basics. Once he told me, “You’ve got to think of the bloke who makes $400 a week. His wife’s got a lump on her breast. His fibro house at Liverpool is missing a panel. He has a drink going home, she’s locked his dinner back in the oven. He doesn’t care what’s happening in the Upper House, what scandal’s happening … he’s concerned about his job, her health.”

In retrospect long periods of dominance look easy. But my diaries recall Wran told his cabinet once that the government had come through a fight with the doctors which closed the hospitals, a public service campaign over superannuation, a war with the teachers and a strike with the Water Board employees which was pumping “excrement onto the beaches”. Now, he said, we need some peace. Too many cycles like that and retirement beckoned.

I overheard him tell a newly elected Nick Greiner, at the top table for an official function: “Your ministers are irrelevant. They just want to be driven around town in their cars. The fact is everything you need you got to do yourself.” In an egalitarian party he reflected a touch of the Bonapartist.

This is another way of saying he seemed to understand the entrenched pattern of NSW politics post-1941: periods of domination by strong leaders (McKell, Cahill, Askin) and intervening periods of mostly short premierships. The doctors’ strike or the Briese affair and the two-man crewing of trains are forgotten. What’s left, as he says, was a better quality of life. And, as we see it now, a decade flavoured with his big personality.

During his 10 years as Premier, even during the period when on the defensive at the end, nobody doubted we had a leader – not the party or the state, not the business elite nor the broader public like the bloke in the fibro cottage and his wife. Nobody doubted we had a leader. And he never doubted he was that.

The Hon. Gareth Evans – Transcript – Launch of ‘Diary of a Foreign Minister’

April 14, 2014

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of The Australian National University and Foreign Minister 1988-96, Sydney, 14 April 2014

Bob Carr took on the job of Australian Foreign Minister believing, as he doesn’t hesitate to tell us, that it was highly unlikely that he would be there for very long. And although he doesn’t put this in quite so many words, it is clear that the approached the role, in these circumstances, with three basic objectives: to keep himself, and Australia, out of trouble; to have a ball; and to write up the whole experience for posterity in the most readable and colourful possible way. On the evidence of our eyes and ears over the last two years, and now of his book, it is clear that, on all three counts, he succeeded admirably.

He slid effortlessly into the presentational role at home and abroad, and kept himself out of trouble with the media (even maintaining, miraculously, the adoration of Greg Sheridan for the whole of his tenure – not the five weeks maximum that I told him was the previous record).

He kept Australia’s flag comfortably flapping through countless multilateral forums and bilateral exchanges; contributed significantly to our spectacularly successful UN Security Council bid (though he graciously acknowledges the central and critical role of our UN Ambassador Gary Quinlan in that success); saved us from at least one spectacular own-goal (on the Palestinian statehood issue, which I will come back to); and navigated his way through what has been, and will remain, Australia’s biggest current and future foreign policy challenge by not offending either Washington or Beijing.

He obviously revelled being back in the middle of the action, and basking in the company of the world’s great, good and glamorous (although it’s also clear that he derived huge and genuine pleasure from his less obviously glamorous encounters in the South Pacific and the African Commonwealth).

And he has given us a book which, in describing all this, captures, as well as anything you’ll ever read, both the crazily sleep-deprived, adrenalin charged, exhilarating and frustrating life of a contemporary foreign minister – and the crazy combination of excitement and despair, idealism and cynicism, that characterizes domestic Australian politics.

Cabinet diaries – a sub-set of the larger rather genre of political diaries, and the much larger one still of political memoirs and autobiographies – tend to fall into two distinct categories, as Bob himself noted back in 1999 reviewing Neil Blewett’s diary of the first Keating Government . One kind focuses on “providing the arguments and raw material for historians” (of which Richard Crossman’s record of the Wilson Government in the UK in the 1960s is the daddy of them all, and Blewett’s a reasonably clear Australian example). And the other kind focuses on “providing episodic colour and personality” (of which the leading Anglo-Saxon example–until now–has been Alan Clark’s wonderfully tasteless and entertaining diaries of the Thatcher years in the UK).

Of course most such diaries try to do both to some extent: all policy debates and no egos, infighting and eccentricities would make for a pretty dull read; while all colour-and-movement, with no real policy substance at all, would be a little too much like daily journalism as it is now practiced to be worth putting between hard covers.

But there is a noticeable distinction within the genre, and it is pretty clear on which side of the line Bob’s diary falls. To the extent that he had any role model for his own diary, I think he would be the first to acknowledge that it was Clark rather more than Crossman.

There’s plenty of incidental meat for analysts and historians to relish – how could there not be with so many encounters at such a high level on so many issues with such key players? But he doesn’t pause very often or for very long to analyse in detail the multiple policy issues with which he wrestled, or to explain how they were resolved within government or advanced in international negotiations. It is not that kind of book. His primary target – and he has hit it — is a general audience interested in reading a very skilfully written account of what it was like to be there.

There are not many of us in Australian public life who have had that privilege, of being there.
I was one of them, and a great many people, as a result, have been asking me over the last week how Bob’s experiences, and his approach to the role, compared with my own when I was Australia’s Foreign Minister. So I hope you won’t mind me spending a little time telling you.

The short answer about the nature of our experiences is that they were remarkably similar, even if many of the issues we dealt with were different. I don’t just mean here the manic pace of it all, the stresses of travel even at the front of the plane, the strain of constant tight-rope walking in one’s public utterances, the pressures of meeting the expectations of domestic constituencies, the sense of exhilaration and excitement on the big occasions and when things go well, and the disappointment and despair when they don’t.

I mean also that sense which we both had – although Bob has been subject to some pummelling over the last week for the way he put it (in terms of not feeling ‘humble’ in the presence of the great) – that Australia thoroughly deserves any place it can win at the top international tables, that competent Australian representatives can match it in any company, and that we can be justly proud of the contribution Australia has made and can continue to make as a good international citizen.

There is an issue, about which some in the Government have been particularly critical, about the propriety of putting those experiences quite so fully on the record so soon after the event. (I have to say that I feel something of a wimp in this respect, waiting nearly 30 years to publish – as MUP will in August – my own diary potentially offending my colleagues in Hawke-Keating Cabinet in the mid-1980s, rather than the less than 30 weeks it has taken Bob to potentially offend his colleagues at home and abroad.)

I don’t think Bob has much to be apologetic about in this respect. No confidences of any consequence are revealed, and certainly nothing of any security sensitivity. Some of the exchanges he retails have the potential to be slightly embarrassing to the participants – and go further by way of revelation than I might have been prepared to as Foreign Minister 20 years ago. But times have changed, and much more is out and about in the media, and social media, than ever used to be the case. I don’t believe that any of our relationships will be prejudiced, or future dialogue made more difficult, by what he has recorded.

On the question of Bob’s and my approaches to the job, there are some evident differences between us, partly reflecting the difference in the circumstances in which we held office, and partly just because – although we have a number of literary/historical and other nerdy interests in common, have been friends for a long time, and he kind enough to describe me as his mentor in this book – we really are very different kinds of people, with very different personal and political styles.

As to the circumstances in which we held office I knew, like most of my predecessors, that in the absence of catastrophe I would have at least three years in the job, and hopefully rather longer; whereas Bob knew that only a political miracle would give him longer than 18 months. And having a longer time horizon certainly enables you to be patiently proactive in creating and building diplomatic initiatives, rather than essentially just reacting, however deftly, to events.

The other contextual difference was that I had the enormous good fortune of working to two Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who each in their different ways had fine instincts for the issues and dynamics of international relations, and who instinctively understood the nature of the relationship which must exist between Prime Minister and Foreign Minister if things are not to end in tears, viz. mutually respectful, highly communicative and interactive, and always willing to find common ground on sensitive issues and not to resolve them simply by the PM pulling rank.

Bob, by contrast, had much more difficulty in all these respects with Julia Gillard, although she did have many admirable prime ministerial qualities, including great professionalism in mastering complex briefs, and very effective interpersonal skills, evident in her international as well as domestic dealings, as I can personally testify.

But beyond the very different contexts in which we operated, we have also been very different in other ways. And I’m not just talking here about my total lack of interest in knowing what “steel-cut oats” are, let alone eating them, and my total lack of ambition – as will be apparent – in achieving “a concave abdomen”, let alone one “defined by deep-cut obliques”, whatever they might be.

There’s a relentlessly pragmatic cast to Bob’s approach to the world which comes through regularly in the diary – which I don’t completely share, never having abandoned my belief that you can marry necessary pragmatism with a quite strong commitment to liberal, and indeed idealistic, principles. One example is the enthusiasm with which he embraced as a “masterstroke” Kevin Rudd’s Papua New Guinea solution to the asylum seeker problem. We could all understand the need for a deterrent dimension to stop the deaths at sea of boat people, but I for one think that this needed to be accompanied by a huge diplomatic effort in the region to address the problem at source, which we never saw.

Another example is Bob’s willingness to be, I think, much too kind – again for reasons related to stopping the flow of asylum seekers – to the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, which was responsible for some horrific violence against civilians in the course of its (otherwise entirely legitimate) military response to the terrorist Tamil Tigers, and has never made an atrocity-accountability commitment it hasn’t breached. I guess Bob would go along in this respect with my friend Jim Baker, who said to me once when he was US Secretary of State, in that inimitable Texan drawl of his, “Well, Gareth, I guess you sometimes just have to rise above principle.”

Moving to less fraught differences between us, an obvious one is that Bob is and remains – as he cheerfully acknowledges – a “media tart” of the first order, who absolutely revels in today’s twittering 24/7 news cycle madness, and is never happier than when contributing sound-bites to it. I, by contrast – while not exactly, in my prime, a media recluse – can’t help but regard today’s environment as closely approximating Dante’s ninth circle of hell

There is a more substantive dimension associated with this differing preoccupation of ours with the media. I saw set-piece foreign ministerial speeches, which I probably spent an inordinate amount of time developing, as really important tools of advocacy, record and instruction – crucial vehicles for articulating ideas about Australia’s place in the world, and getting other opinion leaders at home and abroad to understand and wrestle with its complexity

Bob, by contrast, as he frankly acknowledges throughout the book, saw his speeches in less highfalutin terms: primarily as vehicles for communicating his very engaging personality. Recognising, with his intimate knowledge of media attention-span, that no more than a few lines or sound-bites would ever be widely retailed, he took the view that there was not much point in taking substantive discussion much further than that. I think that was a missed opportunity, and that there is another one in this respect in this book, but it was an understandable call.

I think it’s probably fair to say, while on the subject of presentation, that we also seem have rather different senses of self-referring humour – albeit in neither case of a kind sufficient to keep us out of trouble. I have always leaned to self-deprecation in this respect (‘Whatever you do don’t call me Biggles”, the “Streakers Defence” and so on), being very slow to learn that this is very dangerous politically – not only in the world’s irony-free zones like the US, but also locally, because there is always the risk that you will be taken literally, and regarded as being as big a dill as you say you are.

Bob, by contrast, learned early on that self-deprecation is for dummies, and there is plenty of evidence of his education in this respect in this diary. His preference now is for laying on his mastery of the universe so thick that the comedy (“I sing, I dance, I fly …I am the master entertainer”, “the wonderful one-legged Romanian deadlift” and all the rest) will be seen, as one commentator described it last week, as that of “a true satirist, a self-made grotesque”. The trouble is of course, again, that even in the world’s irony-receptive zone – in which Australia usually counts itself – there will be a lot of people out there who don’t get the joke. But if he’s cheerfully prepared to take that risk, that’s his call.

All these differences duly noted, there is plenty on which Bob and I have agreed, and for which his efforts as Foreign Minister deserve attention and recognition, albeit not discussed in his book in the degree of detail I for one would have liked.

There was the new approach he pioneered to dealing with Myanmar, recognising that isolation and sanctions had largely run their course and there needed to be some greater international engagement with the military regime to edge it toward change.

There was the careful way in which he picked his way through the competing imperatives, in a rapidly evolving strategic environment, of keeping the US alliance alive and well but at the same time staying close friends with our major economic partner China.

There was the role he played in overseeing the crucial last phase of the UN Security Council campaign, projecting an image of Australia as engaged with Africa and the developing world generally, committee to generous international assistance, and committed to global public goods like managing climate change and achieving arms control.

And there was what I regard as perhaps his signature achievement, his leadership role in ensuring, in November 2012, that Australia did not vote “No” on the UN General Assembly resolution to give Palestine observer status there. As Bob records me saying at the time, a No vote “would have been the worst Australian foreign policy decision for a generation”, being not only wrong in principle, but leaving us totally isolated from every friend we had in the world apart from the US and Israel, and mortally wounding our credibility and effectiveness on the Security Council to which we had just been elected.

It’s important to appreciate that while questions of eroding Labor support in Sydney’s Western suburbs was a relevant factor in the debate for some NSW members, the argument in Bob’s eyes, as in mine, was wholly about doing the right thing for Australia – and at the same time not acting against Israel’s real interests but in fact very much in support of them. We had both come to share Bob Hawke’s strong view – and no Labor leader had ever been a firmer friend of Israel – that the Netanyahu government, along with its rusted-on supporters in Australia who were lobbying fiercely for a No vote, was shooting itself in the foot with its intransigence.

On the question of those rusted-on supporters, in particular in the Victorian Jewish community, I don’t think we should get as excited as the press has been in the last few days. This is a lobby group like any other, which wins some and – notwithstanding all the donations and duchessing – loses some. It influenced me to campaign vigorously against the Zionism as Racism resolution when I was Foreign Minister, which I was proud to do because the cause was just. But it also lost me – and my fellow Victorian Bob Hawke – when it lost its way, as it has continued to do to this day, on the larger Palestinian issue. It certainly very strongly influenced Julia Gillard, but I am sure she made the judgements she did – cloth-eared they may have been – on what she believed to be a principled basis,

Bob Carr took the view, as Bob Hawke and I had before him, and with the overwhelming majority of the Cabinet and Caucus agreeing, that pressure had to be mounted to achieve once and for all, and sooner rather than later, a two-state solution – without which Israel will be condemned either to lose its Jewish identity, or to maintain it at the price of ceasing to be an equal-rights-respecting democracy. And the UN vote was simply a legitimate way of increasing that pressure: it left full membership of the UN to be determined and final status issues to be negotiated, and contained no language remotely offensive to Israel. Forcing the issue in the Cabinet and the Party room, and ensuring that the majority view prevailed, even if PM Gillard was deeply embarrassed in the process, was not about crude local electoral politics: it was about ensuring that Australia was not seen internationally as being on the wrong side of history.

The treatment of the Palestinian issue is about as detailed as the analysis and argument gets in this diary about the great substantive issues of foreign policy with which Bob and the Government – and indeed the region and the world – were wrestling during this period. And, whether or not he felt constrained by the rules governing Cabinet secrecy so close to the event, you won’t find in the book anything very secret, and previously unsuspected, being disclosed.

But what you will find is, again, a wonderfully engaging account of what it’s like to be there¸ where and when it’s all happening, written with great flair and obviously huge enjoyment of life. This is a book which should fly out of the stores and on to the shelves of anyone with even a passing interest in politics and public affairs. And so it should. It’s a great read.

Greg Sheridan – “Carr’s Modern Classic” (The Australian, April 11, 2014)

April 11, 2014

Bob Carr has written a minor classic of Australian foreign affairs. But perhaps the word “minor” is unfair.

His diaries are full of substance and revelation, a high-octane internal dialogue on several key issues. Like all good political diaries, they are spiced with telling reflections on many colleagues. But there is also the characteristic Carr wit and, at times, self-deprecation.

No official should write a book like Carr’s, which is full of revelations of private conversations. But I can’t get too fussed about a minister doing so.

Recently retired American cabinet secretaries write this sort of stuff all the time: witness the many startling revelations in the superb recent memoirs of Bob Gates, defence secretary under US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Carr agonises throughout his diaries over the balance in Australian policy between the US and China; he and his government disagree sharply with Washington and London over Sri Lanka; he pioneers the closest engagement with Myanmar, including ending sanctions against that benighted country; tries to put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the centre of Australian regional diplomacy; pursues the closest relationship he can with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa; leads a frantic and ultimately successful campaign to win a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council; and leads a successful revolt against then prime minister Julia Gillard on elevating Palestinian representation at the UN.

Now, I don’t agree with Carr on every aspect of each of these issues, but it is a huge agenda of substance. Carr was impatient with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paperwork; he hated the tedium of the speeches and often the briefing notes they prepared for him. But the diaries reveal a minister grappling with enormous policy issues.

They are laced with humour, irony, caricature and self-parody. These are dangerous commodities to trade in, here in Australia.

But inevitably some of his reflections and reports about his colleagues will command attention. Two of the strangest concern Kevin Rudd. One has Carr arguing about the Middle East with Gillard. She tells him Rudd “had kept going to Israel, driving (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu mad proposing a batty peace plan and promising to commit Australian troops to patrolling borders”.

Carr’s comment: “I quickly agreed this was nuts.’’

This all demands serious elucidation.

It reminds me of the account in Stephen Mills’s book The Hawke Years, never really contradicted, of Bob Hawke coming up with an equally batty peace plan for Saddam Hussein and Iraq and persecuting the first president Bush with many telephone calls about it. These things never make their way into prime ministerial memoirs.

Carr recounts the No 2 official at the commonwealth secretariat complaining of Rudd’s rudeness, with Rudd telling him: “If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.’’

He also details a number of Australian officials describing extremely aggressive body language from Rudd in encounters with Japanese and Singaporean foreign ministers. These are all quite devastating revelations for Rudd.

On Gillard, Carr is less damning at the level of personal style but makes it clear that he believed that in foreign policy, as generally, she just could not embody or project sufficient authority for the job of prime minister.

Partly because it records so many conversations at the top of international affairs, Carr’s diary is full of substance. But the workings of his own mind on Australian foreign policy are also profoundly absorbing and insightful.

Carr has a dialogue with himself, all the way through the book, about the proper balance of Australian policy between the US and China. He accepts the nearly universal Australian support for the US alliance. He accepts its contribution to Australian security. He believes in the future of the alliance, as well as its past.

But he is partly susceptible to the idea that Canberra has got a bit too close to Washington, and has perhaps needlessly distanced itself from Beijing. This is a theme handled, in my view, with great honesty and intelligence by Carr throughout the book. He has a Socratic dialogue with himself on this. Indeed, I am reminded irresistibly about a line on George Orwell in a recent biography, that he left behind not so much a body of work as a mind caught in words.

I think at times Carr is a little too sensitive about Beijing’s allegedly hurt feelings. And he takes up the foreign minister’s role having absorbed a certain amount of the pro-China, anti-American zeitgeist promoted in different ways by Paul Keating, Malcolm Fraser and academic Hugh White.

But reality keeps intruding and Carr is far too smart to ignore reality. He sends an email to Kim Beazley, our ambassador in Washington, retailing an argument that Australia has got too close to the US. One of the best things in the book is Beazley’s cable in reply, printed in full.

Beazley points out not only that the US is getting more deeply engaged in Asia, partly as a response to the persuasive arguments put to it by Labor governments, but also that Australian governments have shrewdly used the alliance to leverage Australia’s distinctive interests and policy objectives across the board.

Carr also reports a deep DFAT analysis that says China does not place Australia very high in its estimation of nations, and the one thing that makes us more important to the Chinese is our closeness to the Americans.

It is worth quoting Carr at length on this. He writes: “Keating launches Hugh White’s book on the US and China. He’s half right — but to talk about us giving China strategic space? What does that mean, strategic space?

“Does he endorse White’s view, for example, that Japan should move out of its alliance with the US? And South Korea as well? That Vietnam should accept Chinese dominance? Well, that’s strategic space.

“Beijing would relish this discussion in Australia. After all, the Chinese want to see us disoriented over our bilateral relationship.

“I form the view that we should not react. The basics are good, we trade, we talk: the metrics are healthy, as our Ambassador put it to me. The pro-China lobby are over-egging the pudding.

“They want to make us fidgety and defensive about our China policy. Make us anxious. That’s not the way to respond. In this phase of the relationship, with them making us uncomfortable, a bit of benign neglect is needed, not letting the Chinese think we care too much. Until things settle. I resolve on this.’’

This is eminent common sense from Carr.

Elsewhere, recounting the effort, which was ultimately successful, to get the Chinese to commit to a strategic dialogue at leaders’ level, Carr determines to be relaxed about the timing, and to say that he’s relaxed about the timing. To be unruffled. To be constructive with the Chinese, and certainly not looking for arguments, but not to shy away from defending Australia’s interests, and not to give the Chinese the impression that we are desperate for their approval.

All this is the sound workings of a good mind on Australian policy. I sincerely hope Carr follows Beazley’s advice not to change these sober, sensible but inherently unsexy views when he is out of office and freed from the responsibilities of power.

Carr champions engagement with Myanmar and definitively lifting, not suspending, sanctions on the nation, and helping it with the EU and the UN. Again, this is good policy judgment.

He tries to put ASEAN high in our diplomatic priorities.

He pursues Australian interests with Sri Lanka and shares with Alexander Downer the simple insight that it is good that the Tamil Tigers terrorist outfit was defeated in the Sri Lankan civil war and that positive engagement and encouragement for Sri Lanka is good policy in itself, as well as allowing Australia to pursue its own interests with Colombo.

I disagree with Carr’s decision to abstain rather than oppose the move at the UN to upgrade the Palestinian representation to nearer that of a state. I don’t think it helps the peace process.

But Carr’s book also contains many positive things about Israel. He tells a Palestinian delegation he will not criticise the separation wall the Israelis have built, that if bombs had been raining down on Sydney while he was NSW premier he too would have built a separation wall.

I think Carr overestimates the power of the Melbourne-based pro-Israel lobby and writes about it in a way that is needlessly hurtful, but I also believe he holds his positions in good faith and with goodwill.

He makes the right strategic call about switching to a much more robust position to deter illegal immigrants coming by boat.

There are things I disagree with in the book, but overall Carr made a very strong contribution to a very weak government.

He had a genius for presentation and a zest for argument and explanation that is a kind of zest for life.

This is evident in marvellous passages giving thanks for the good fortune of having this splendid job of foreign minister, and in one beautiful passage about his wife, Helena.

Overall, this is an important and highly entertaining contribution to a rare popular foreign policy literature in Australia.

Stages of Hillary as a star player wins over rivals

March 24, 2014

My review of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes published in The Australian on March 22:

Hillary Clinton deftly steps down from the plane, her blonde hair pulled back, her face behind outsize sunglasses. Beaming star power, she declares it’s wonderful to be in Perth.

Wonderful? It has been 35 hours with three stops to get to Australia for annual talks, part of her 1.5 million kilometres notched up as US secretary of state, visiting 112 out of 193 nations. Later she tells me she sleeps on planes and, yes, she believes in vitamins. At our dinner she shows no fatigue, handles all with breezy grace.

When we last saw her in the pages of a book it was in Game Change (2010) by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. They captured her in June 2008 in her Senate office after her defeat in the Democratic primaries. She declared: “We had the entire press corps against us, which usually Bill and I could care less, but this was above and beyond anything that had ever happened.” She seemed punch drunk, dazed.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s HRC, which covers Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, takes up the story at this point, with her staff putting together a list of traitors who had to be punished for swinging to Barack Obama. Later, a Clinton aide would see divine justice in the downfall — one after the other — of these miscreants, as the authors record: “ ‘Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down … Ted Kennedy,’ the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, ‘dead’.”

Despite the sulphur in the air, it was impossible for her to say no to the job offer from the President. And Obama handled her adroitly, overruling his staff to let her have her loyalists on the payroll, including as chief of protocol, a position usually chosen by the president.

Early manoeuvres between Obama and Clinton were as delicate as a merger of two corporations, recalls one adviser. Obama’s deference allowed this team of rivals to fall into place. When Clinton suffered concussion in 2012 he was to say of her: “I love her, love her … I love my friend.” He’s expected to support her over Vice-President Joe Biden if (or when) she announces for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

In this career shift she displayed the adaptability she had shown in inventing herself as a Senate candidate from New York in 2000 and, after her win, as a member of the Senate club. It’s “stages of Hillary”, one insider says. You start by dreading working with her, then begrudgingly start to respect her; then outright respect her because of her ferocious work ethic. Then, you actually come to like her “and she’s charming and she’s funny and she’s interesting and she’s inquisitive and she’s engaging”.

Secretaries of state can be overshadowed by the national security staff in the White House. One Clinton response, however, was to build strong alliances with defence secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus. It was this alliance with the Pentagon that in December 2009 persuaded the President to favour a surge of troop numbers in Afghanistan, a policy battle captured in yet another of Bob Woodward’s lugubrious books, Obama’s Wars (2010).

Nobody can audit Clinton’s four years as secretary of state without reference to the recklessness of the preceding Bush years. Today, George W. seems locked up in what looks like house arrest in Preston Hollow in Dallas, and his swivel-eyed advisers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are held accountable for two trillion-dollar wars that only demonstrated US weakness and enlarged its enemies.

The first Obama administration had to absorb the cost of these adventures. It was plain as day America could not shape events in the Middle East. The US has no more influence in what happens in the Crimea than it had over Russian invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively.

In an era calling for policy proportionate and measured, it was right to lead from behind on Libya, right — after agonising — to decline support for Syrian rebels. It was right to ­accede a Russian role on Syrian chemical weapons and to talk to Iran. It is what the war-weary US public wants anyway.

I record in my diaries how an Australian businessman suggested I needed to pick more arguments with the US to demonstrate our independence to China. I said apart from any other objection this would be hard when it came to the Obama administration and secretary of state Clinton. When they seek to conserve and not squander the US’s smart power, to engage with the Islamic world, or to elevate the rights of women and girls in developing countries, their stance reflects what most Australians would want to see in their American partner.

The authors argue Clinton had no spectacular “marquee achievements” such as a heraldic peace agreement. They might have added, no new architecture for global consultations. But in a book devoted to beltway gossip, they are at least wise enough to see Clinton’s success should not be measured in these terms anyway. She was a success in nurturing relationships, handling crises such as Gaza, and saying no to the draining adventurism of the previous administration.

There is a view in Southeast Asia that the American commitment to our region — the rebalance to Asia — is not something anyone can rely on. I have heard this from foreign ministers, diplomats, think tankers. They could argue this book supports their case. Its 440 pages include two chapters on Benghazi but no mention of the pivot to Asia, of Clinton’s hard work in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the deep feel for Asia of her assistant, Kurt Campbell. If a pair of Washington insiders can entirely overlook US commitments to our part of the world, then a future administration can easily forget they were ever made.

For the record

February 14, 2014

Richard Ackland is incorrect when he says I was a supporter of mandatory sentences (”In a sentence, mandatory terms mean muddles”, February 7). In fact, I stared down and defeated Liberal opponents who in three state elections were advocating mandatory minimum sentences: in 1995 when John Fahey campaigned on Californian-style ”three strikes” sentencing; in 1999 when Kerry Chikarovski campaigned for mandatory minimum sentencing; and in 2003 when John Brogden campaigned for compulsory minimum sentencing. The reason we are having a debate now is that I blocked its introduction, that I defeated Liberals who on three occasions were pushing it.

And for the record, I was never talked out of mandatory sentencing by Chief Justice Jim Spigelman because I never believed in it.

West Bank settlements always illegal

February 14, 2014

The Australian, February 12 2014:

ANY confusion about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank can be easily resolved. There is a file in the office of the Israeli Prime Minister that will do it.

The file would be handy for John Kerry as he attempts to broker a peace. It would help Julie Bishop, who told The Times of Israel on January 15 she’d like to see advice that says settlements are illegal.

It was this advice that an Israeli prime minister asked for in 1967. Israel had just conquered what is now the West Bank. Prime minister Levi Eshkol asked Israel’s top authority on international law, Theodor Meron, whether Israel could settle civilians there.

Meron was a child survivor of the Holocaust and has since become one of the world’s leading authorities on the laws of war and a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

His advice was unequivocal, and today he sticks to it. He said: “Civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

When General Moshe Dayan in 1968 proposed building Israeli towns on the West Bank he blithely conceded: “Settling Israelis in administered territories, as is known, contravenes international conventions … “

Indeed, the Fourth Geneva Convention would appear to leave no room for argument. It states: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Apologists for settlements try to argue that Article 49 bars the occupier only from “forced transfer” (my emphasis) of its civilians. This is not the interpretation accepted by the International Court of Justice or anyone else. The adjective “forced” does not appear in the convention.

I think I recognise a killer argument when I see one. The killer argument here is that Israel’s own legal authority, at the very start, told its government that settlements were illegal under international law.

It’s curious that supporters of Israel would choose to fight on this ground – their weakest.

When I was foreign minister the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council directed a furious effort at trying to block even routine criticism of settlements, as if this were more vital than advocating a two-state solution or opposing boycotts of Israel. Settlers themselves shatter all sympathy, as on the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday when Daniella Weiss stated they deliberately had occupied land to block the creation of a Palestinian state because “this land was promised to the Jewish nation by God”.

In Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary The Ultra Zionists, religious settlers declared Palestinians an inferior race. “This is the Jewish homeland and there’s never been a Palestinian people,” declared one, standing on a property formerly occupied by Palestinians. In one blast they defied centuries of priceless Jewish liberal and humanitarian instinct.

No one from the centre-Left of European politics is going to do anything other than repudiate this ultra-religious vision. “The kibbutz used to be the symbol of Israel,” a British Labour MP told me. “Now it’s the settlement bloc.” American Jewry is increasingly detaching itself from what it sees as a chauvinist, illiberal strain in Israeli politics.

Kerry warned Israel last month of the danger of delegitimisation, especially after the EU announced any economic treaties with Israel would carefully exclude – one may say boycott – business activity in Israeli settlements.

I know some supporters of Israel would want to point out that there are a range of settlement categories. My response is to quote Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who once said: “If you’ve got to explain, you’ve lost already.”

In any case, there is available a far more intelligent defence of Israel. Concede that the settlement mission is controversial within Israel. Point out many Israelis are opposed to the settler vision of a greater Israel indefinitely governing a majority Arab population. Give up any argument that settlements are legal under international law and move on to more fruitful territory.

Insist that liberal democracy and shining economic success – even with constant threat of war – are the chief virtues of Israel, a state where six former heads of its security agency, Shin Bet, can appear in a documentary (The Gatekeepers) and criticise Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, a state where its own Supreme Court can overrule its government on use of torture or the direction of a wall opposed by Palestinian villagers, where historians freely challenge their country’s own foundation myth. Where, as Four Corners showed, its military personnel can speak out against the occupation.

In all these respects, Israel presents a benchmark of pluralism and democracy – a formidable one – for a future Palestinian entity. If Palestinians achieved it, they would set off a challenge to Arab dictatorship and theocracy everywhere and realise their own greatness.

Indonesians won’t tolerate coming off second best

September 30, 2013

Op-ed published in The Sydney Morning Herald today, September 30:

Australia’s national interest lies in having 10 resilient, prosperous and interconnected neighbours, lying across our northern approaches. This is unarguable. And it’s the context for our relationship with the largest ASEAN member, Indonesia.

Yet Australia’s relations with Indonesia are threatened by the political slogan “Turn back the boats”. It would be nice to know that when the shadow cabinet settled on the slogan, Julie Bishop had argued against it and for the imperatives of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

Either way, the Abbott Government must recognise that within Indonesia public opinion creates foreign policy pressures, as it does in Australia.

Earlier this year on a visit to Jakarta I raised our concern that irregular migrants from Iran arrived in Jakarta, paid 25 dollars for a visa at the airport and then travelled to Indonesian ports and pay money to people smugglers to get into Australian waters.

In the context of our excellent working relationship with Indonesia, two of their ministers said they understood our concern. As a result, in August they were to end the visa-on-arrival system for Iranians. But the Indonesians made it clear they would be implementing this reform to meet their own domestic dynamics, to tidy up their own immigration system. In other words, they could not and would not be seen to be doing this as a favour to another nation.

This reflects a view in the Indonesian parliament and media that Indonesia always comes out second-best in dealing with foreigners. For example, last year President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reduced Schapelle Corby’s sentence by five years. This was in response to representations by Australia that had been made in private and not transmitted through public diplomacy.

The President, however, faced loud criticism from members of the Indonesian parliament whose members are strongly opposed to illegal drug use.

The Indonesian foreign ministry, in an unprecedented move, last week released minutes of previously confidential discussions with Foreign Minister Bishop. That can be read in only one way. Their government was managing domestic opinion, which wants to know their leaders aren’t caving in to intrusions on Indonesian sovereignty, especially by a brash new bunch of Aussie politicians.

Alexander Downer dismissed Indonesian sensibilities as “pious rhetoric”. Not helpful. Indonesian sensibilities have to be seriously weighed.

Two months ago the Indonesian Government was alarmed and offended by news that a so-called “Freedom Flotilla” of protesting Australians was headed for its Papuan provinces. This was a small and isolated protest, but an element of Indonesian opinion saw it as reflecting dark Australian designs to ultimately carve out their two Papuan provinces from the Republic.

We took the Indonesian concerns seriously. In that spirit I said that if protesters knowingly and after due warning violated Indonesian immigration laws they should not expect a million dollars of Australian consular attention to be expended on their case. And a DFAT officer on Thursday Island quietly persuaded them to return.

When I gave this news to Minister Marty Natalegawa at the G20 in St Petersburg he expressed satisfaction with the outcome and with Australia’s understanding of Indonesian sensitivities. What might have been to Indonesian public opinion a provocative Australian action never proceeded. We remain in agreement with the Indonesians that their two Papuan provinces present human rights concerns but no argument about sovereignty.

Taking a similar approach, Prime Minister Tony Abbott should drop his somewhat nutty policy of buying Indonesian fishing boats. Indonesia has an estimated 726,000 boats along its coastline. By the way, imagine how Australian public opinion, inflamed by talkback demagogues, would greet a comparable Indonesian incursion into our domestic policy?

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