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Speak softly and don't stuff up: Bob Carr's legacy

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As was widely anticipated, former foreign minister Bob Carr has resigned from the Senate, opening the way for the appointment of a new Labor Senator in New South Wales. In announcing his resignation, Carr described his period as foreign minister as being the learning equivalent of "a dozen PhDs" and an exercise in continuity.

In a year-and-a-half as foreign minister, Carr took a "steady as she goes" approach to running Australia’s foreign relations. He term was very much a matter of locking in policies that were already in play, rather than initiating any new direction in Australia’s international outlook.

Carr noted that his approach to China was consistent with pre-existing policy of stronger engagement in trade while treading carefully on more controversial diplomatic and strategic issues. In this, Australia under Carr took a very careful line on China’s claims in the South China Sea, that the territorial disputes should be settled through a multilateral discussion.

Such an approach was diplomatically inoffensive, but not one that China was ever likely to take much notice of.

Australia’s other main achievement under Carr was its securing of a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the bid for which had been put in place by Carr’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, when he was foreign minister. Again, this was consistent with his "continuity" approach.

Carr did claim, in announcing his resignation from the Senate, that he was pleased to have presided over "improved relations with the Arab world". While Australia has had slightly closer engagement with a number of Arab states, it is difficult to see any significant improvement in relations.

The so-called "Arab Spring" has led to more chaos than order and very little democracy. Australia’s role in any of that has been at the margins, primarily as an onlooker.

Carr’s main advantage as foreign minister was his erudite and somewhat urbane personal outlook. These well complemented his top Australian diplomatic role, helping to present a somewhat more sophisticated Australian face to the world than had previously been available, or deserved.

Had he more time, perhaps Carr would have been one of Australia’s better foreign ministers. But 18 months in office is too short a tenure other than to do exactly what he did, which was keep the seat warm and not make any mistakes.

Carr will now use his "dozen PhDs" of learning as a professorial fellow at the University of Sydney.

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