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Lunch with the Australian Financial Review

December 19, 2011

From the Australian Financial Review, December 17, 2011:

“No bread,” said Bob Carr. Instead, the midday meal would be a “high protein opportunity.”

The former NSW Labor Premier took control. “I have come here for your grain-fed beef – your leanest version, eye fillet and well done, with English mustard, no salt, no potatoes, a huge quantity of tomato and lettuce [but] not the onions so much.”

Wine was out, too, for a 64-year-old starch-and-carbs-averse health fanatic. However, he indulged the proclivities of the Fourth Estate – after all, he was once a journalist – and Bob Carr graciously consented to some limited imbibing by the representative of The Australian Financial Review.

The result, a recommendation of the restaurant, was a 2009 Rufus Stone Heathcote Shiraz from the Geelong region in Victoria, which was, quite frankly, delicious.

We were dining at Steersons Steakhouse in the grand foyer area of the magnificent sandstone building that was once headquarters of Burns Philp, the former Pacific Island trading company, in Bridge Street, near Sydney’s Circular Quay.

Bob Carr’s choice of restaurant resonated. As NSW Environment Minister in an earlier Labor administration, he placed conservation orders on the Burns Philp headquarters and other sandstone buildings in Bridge Street. It remains one of Sydney’s more elegant thoroughfares.

As lunch progressed, it became apparent there was more to chew on than steak. Regarded as bookish, Bob Carr is in the seventh year of “retirement” from his record 10 years and six months as NSW Premier, but energy levels are high.

A consultant to the Macquarie Group, on the board of book retailer Dymocks, one of three ‘wise old owls’ who presided over a scathing report on Labor’s doleful 2010 election performance, Bob Carr maintains a hectic pace. He travels, gives speeches, agitates, dines with the great and the good, writes articles and books, pens pieces for his blog, and has personal tutorials in philosophy.

He also attends plays and gave Kevin Spacey’s Richard the Third, recently performed in Sydney, a tart touch-up in his blog. Plus there’s films and concerts, and an awesome reading list.

Slowly slicing through his steak, meticulously mixing small portions on his fork with tomato and lettuce, he shares a revealing moment: “I couldn’t live without learning things. I realize [my knowledge] is deficient in many respects.”

Making up for it, “I have a brilliant tutor in philosophy,” who plies his trade in Carr’s city office. It would not be hard to imagine a Talleyrand or Pitt engaging in similar pursuits but hardly Carr’s Labor predecessors in NSW – people like Jack Lang or Joe Cahill.

Beyond Plato’s Republic, Bob Carr ranges from the role of state governments to the US Alliance, uranium mining to saving orangutans, alleged communist influence on Labor’s left to the future of social democracy, forcing fast food joints to reveal the calorie levels of their offerings – “you might see the bulletin on my blog about Hungry Jacks re-composing their food” – to opening up the Australian book market. And so on.

But Bob Carr is mum on the ALP – a political party he has belonged to for half a century and under whose name he held high parliamentary office.

“Here’s my answer to that question: there’ll be no answer because today at lunch at Steersons I’m bringing down the shutters on further talk about the ALP’s future. It’s been over-analysed; everything that could be said has been said. There’s been the Labor Party inquiry, there’s been half a dozen books. The Coalition, which is ahead in the polls, is unanalysed. I encourage newspapers like yours to analyse the Coalition.”

Less explicitly, he was also bringing down the shutters on NSW ALP sleaze. It was not quite Apres Bob, le Deluge, and there may not have been Bunga Bunga parties a la Silvio Berlusconi, but scandal and corruption have debauched NSW Labor.

This includes recent revelations that former NSW Energy Minister Ian McDonald was provided with a night of what H.G. Nelson refers to as horizontal folk dancing with a member of the world’s oldest profession in return for facilitating introductions for property developer, and accused murderer, Ron Medich.

Oh and former NSW planning minister Tony Kelly faces possible criminal charges after corruptly backdating a letter used to mislead investigators probing the $12.2 million purchase of a former union retreat in the beautiful Pittwater region, 40 kilometres north of Sydney.

But, hey, this is NSW!

Labor’s NSW shame may, consciously or otherwise, play some role in former state premier Carr’s view that the states should be neutered, but not abolished.

“They’ve been stripped of so much power in the last 15 years – industrial relations, tax on petrol, alcohol and tobacco; corporations power; control over school curriculum. You’ll never get rid of them but I think the answer is to make state MP’s part-time as in some US states. State ministries should be a quarter of their present size.”

“In Victoria you had a minister for respect under the previous [Labor] Government. In NSW you had a state minister for veterans’ affairs, and you had an assistant minister for veterans’ affairs. What do they do? Pick up the wreaths after ANZAC Day? Surely it’s only a matter of time before we have a [state] minister for colonisation of outer space. This is make-work stuff.“

As for social democracy, the ideological underpinning of the welfare state, and Carr’s animating passion, he now acknowledges problems. Social democracy became standard fare in post-war Western Europe, but debt and the rise of China are overwhelming the social democrat model.

Social democracy unravelled because it had “reached the limits of tax,” through pressure from poor immigrants to get on richer nations’ social security rolls, and “the rorts and corruption of the system.” For social democrats to survive in office in a new era of stringency requires “inspired, principled improvisation,” so you “make it up as you go along.”

More interesting for Carr, the American history buff, is the state of Australia’s alliance with the US. He remains a staunch supporter of the Alliance, but “there’s nothing wrong in a bit of fierce argument behind closed doors. “ For example, “I think we should draw the line at signing up for the American campaign against China’s currency policies.”

“America is currently full of a lot of pathologies that punch through into their foreign policy stance, like the xenophobia you see in the Republican Presidential debates.” He likens them to “some sort of psychodrama staged in a group home for the developmentally disabled.”

“From time to time it’s our role to tone down some American enthusiasms. We should be cautioning them on China, for example. [Former US President] Bill Clinton said to me in an exchange we had at a dinner I hosted a couple of days before September 11: ‘You’ve got to remember there are a lot of people in my country who think America must always have enemies’.

He endorses the “realism” behind former Labor Government Foreign Minister Gareth Evans’ comment that ‘great powers do what great powers do’. “We should be cautioning America to plan for a peaceful accommodation of the inevitability of a greater Chinese strategic presence in the Pacific.”

America can be a nation of what Carr terms “Wilsonian idealism.” The US “can go beyond its own national interest.” On the other hand, “you’ve got the catastrophically inept response to the challenges of September 11: two bankrupting wars that have resolved nothing – Iraq and Afghanistan – and the prospect of a third in Iran.”

“Iraq showed that nation states don’t learn. If Saddam [Hussein] had been left to putrefy, he would have been taken out by the civil unrest that you saw in Egypt, in Tunisia, and you are seeing now in Syria.”

Finishing his high-protein fare, Carr takes a coffee, and admits to a sense of “sublime pessimism.” This attack of what Truman Capote’s fictional character Holly Golightly termed the ‘mean reds’ is not just about the global economic crisis, but the “explosion of human numbers and associated activity degrading the planet.”

He cites as an example the struggle to preserve a forest in Sumatra that was home to 400 orangutans. “Our species is on the point of saying ‘let’s rip out all this forest for Palm Oil plantations – [destroy] this marvellous diversity in life, and we human beings will exterminate 400 orangutans that have lived in that forest. That’s what makes me despair. We discuss interest rates and by-election results. But meanwhile the Arctic is free of ice for a longer and longer period each year.”

“It’s as if humanity has looked at the evidence of global warming, thought for a moment, and said ‘no, it’s too hard’ and turned away to have the party roar on.”

“The thing is the retreat of nature. The natural world is in retreat, whether it’s tropical rain forest or coastal wetlands, desertification of Africa, the plundering of water supplies and above all the most frightening: dead zones in the world’s oceans as the chemicals we use are flushed into the sea from the world’s river systems.”

After that grim prognosis there was little time for small talk. Bob Carr took his leave while the AFR was left with the consolation prize of a half full glass of Heathcote Shiraz.

Steersons Steakhouse

7 Bridge Street, Sydney

two fillet 220 gm 73.00

one tomato and onions 10.50

one flat white 4.50

two latte 9.00

one sparkling 8.50

two Rufus shiraz 24.00

Total 129.50

  1. TerjeP permalink
    December 19, 2011 1:08 pm

    I’m a recent convert to low carb high protein eating and it has done me the world of good in terms of weight loss. So no arguments on that count.

    I’m not a fan of the welfare state by any means. I don’t regard welfare as having been invented by government but rather it was nationalised by governments and then poorly managed. See the following for background:-

    What I would really like to say though is that the primary problem with social welfare in Europe lays in large part with how it is financed. In Greece, Italy and Portugal employers pay a payroll tax of roughly 30%. In theory this generates the revenue to pay for just some of the welfare handouts. However payroll taxes are a brilliant way to stifle employment and destroy the self reliance available of employment. The dead weight costs of these taxes are also enormous. I can’t see any reform in these countries being more important than abolishing these taxes. And if they are abolished I can’t see any of their other problems, social or economic, being made worse. In fact there would be a huge improvement in their situation. They need a Roger Douglas style approach to their economic reform program.

  2. Peter Pando permalink
    December 25, 2011 5:54 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    How do you square China’s imperial – or even simply its economic – ambitions, which entail an increased presence of China-style socio-legal control around the world and an increased consumption of resources (including beef and land for cattle), with the increased pressure on the environment which you express concern about? We hope you aren’t an advocate of population ‘replacement’ policies, which so often assist and inspire imperialist expansions, and which if applied successfully in Australia’s case represent a failure in education’s leadership. Do you really believe a civilization which derives its power from an impoverished population willing to work for anything would change its demographic imperatives when its rulership has garnered enough foreign credit on their under-population’s sweat to speculate (for example) in the finest of world real estate, foreign agricultural land, and in modern war machines? There is no evidence apparent to the world that with great power status China would cease seeking to expand its demographic pattern. It seems more likely that it will simply perpetuate the troubles of domestic China across the world, including its immense environmental difficulties.

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