EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Bob Carr's appointment will destabilise Labor
, March 17, 2012
Following the bruising leadership battle in which Julia Gillard decisively defeated the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, sending him to the backbenches, the Prime Minister announced the extraordinary appointment of Bob Carr, the ex-Premier of New South Wales, as Foreign Minister despite the fact that Mr Carr was not a member of the federal parliament at the time of his appointment.
The novelty of the Carr appointment won almost universal approval from the Canberra Press Gallery, the political journalists who shape much of what we see and hear. To them, Bob Carr is Labor’s “star recruit”, “inspired” and “the right man for the job”.
But the widespread criticism of the move from ordinary Australians, in letters to the editor and political blogs, is more likely to be ultimately vindicated.
The immediate impact of the leadership battle will be seen in Queensland, where Labor’s Anna Bligh is facing an uphill battle in the forthcoming state election. While local issues have coalesced against “Captain” Bligh, many Queenslanders deeply resented the 2010 coup which deposed their fellow Queenslander and elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.
Julia Gillard’s recent humiliation of Mr Rudd in the leadership battle reinforced their sense of betrayal, and could turn Labor’s defeat in Queensland into a débâcle.
Beyond the Queensland election, the installation of Bob Carr raises other questions. Australia follows British parliamentary practice where senior ministers earn their spurs by serving as backbenchers, then rise in the ranks of their party through promotions which ultimately put them into Cabinet.
The system is obviously imperfect, but it does at least ensure that ministers serve an apprenticeship before being given senior posts.
In contrast, in the United States the President appoints people to all senior posts, and these appointees are often chosen from outside the Congress. Gillard’s appointment of Bob Carr as Foreign Minister, without his having spent any time in federal parliament, is clearly following the American pattern, but in the process has deeply antagonised some of the senior colleagues whose support ensured her crushing win over Kevin Rudd.
As one of Canberra’s best-sourced journalists Laurie Oakes noted, Bob Carr’s appointment particularly upset the former Foreign Minister in the Rudd Government and now Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, who has been in parliament for 18 years. Gillard had apparently earlier offered the Foreign Affairs post to Smith, who was one of her strongest supporters against Rudd.
Her reshuffle also antagonised Joel Fitzgibbon, another strong supporter, who was offered the relatively junior rank of Parliamentary Secretary, but refused it. Fitzgibbon was Defence Minister in the Rudd Government, but resigned in 2009.
And two prominent Rudd backers in the Ministry, Senator Kim Carr and Robert McClelland, were demoted.
The appointment of Bob Carr will therefore increase disunity in the Labor ministry, whatever the spin-doctors may say.
There is another aspect of the Carr appointment which deserves attention. According to Laurie Oakes, the Carr-for-Canberra push was put forward by the News South Wales ALP secretary, Sam Dastyari, clearly with the prior knowledge of Senator Mark Arbib, who resigned his Senate post to make way for Bob Carr.
Arbib, a loyal servant of the NSW right, is a former NSW secretary of the ALP and helped engineer Gillard’s accession as PM in 2010.
Dastyari sold the plan to Gillard who saw it as a circuit-breaker after months of bad publicity, because it would enable her to project herself as a strong leader who would override the vested interests in her ministry.
As Oakes said, “Parachuting a 64-year-old retiree into the Senate and the Cabinet might seem like a strange way to refresh a government, but this Government is in such desperate straits that it has to be willing to try anything” (Adelaide Advertiser, March 3, 2012).
Now the NSW ALP has no interest in who serves as Gillard’s Foreign Minister, but it has a strong interest in who is Prime Minister. If Gillard continues to falter, Bob Carr’s appointment as Foreign Minister puts him in the running for leadership of the ALP, however remote that might appear to be today.
There are major hurdles to the success of this project. For one thing, senators cannot be prime ministers. But when the Liberals faced a similar leadership crisis after the death of Harold Holt in 1967, they elected Senator John Gorton leader, then created a vacancy in the House of Representatives for him to become Prime Minister.
As a successful former Premier of New South Wales, who stepped down after 10 years undefeated in the polls, Bob Carr can be expected to create his own profile as a credible national leader over the next six months. The enthusiastic publicity he has already received in the media commences that process.
From the NSW ALP’s perspective, it creates the possibility of a future alternative leader emerging, where none exists today. It is ironic that Julia Gillard has facilitated this process.
Whichever way you look at it, Gillard’s extraordinary appointment of Bob Carr as Foreign Minister is likely to end in tears.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.