Bob Carr's book and Australia's guided democracy

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Bob Carr's new book is an insightful and illuminating read and Carr does not deserve the hysterical public condemnation he's received for writing it, says Bob Ellis.

THOUGH STRONGLY ADVISED by his father, Jor-El, that he must not intervene in  human history, Bob Carr, the mild-mannered reporter, has flown backwards against the spin of the Earth, restoring the past and plumped us down in March, 2012, his finest hour, and earned a lot of money for Interplast, his favourite charity, which adjusts the hare-lips of disabled children.
Millions more will be added to this worthy cause when he confidently sues Peter Hartcher ('he has lost his mind'); Chris Kenny (this book shows 'the grown-ups are back in charge'); the Sydney Morning Herald editorial writer ('has let down his party, his colleagues and his country'); Tom Allard ('a tosser and a snob'); Simon Cobcroft of the letters page ('like Narcissus lured by Nemesis'); and perhaps twenty more — five million in toto, I would calculate, a worthy small triumph for Superman, who has been known to rescue a cat from a tree.

I've read a third of this fine book now and, it's fair to say, I think it's already altered our politics immeasurably. 

Julie Bishop now has to produce a better one, or even a better paragraph, or a better sentence, or a better phrase — and she can't. The current policy idiocy over Asia is exposed. The Kenny line that 'the grown-ups are now in charge' is laughable.

When, as it will, it gains a Pulitzer Prize or a Premier's Award – something that, curiously, Battlelines did not – the damage it has done to the Liberals will be greater even than it is now, three days later, when spending on a search for South Seas scrap metal more than would have saved Holden, and a quarter of a million jobs, they seem like boastful ignorant peasants knee-deep in Sargasso doldrums and bound to lose three states and, for the last time, the Federation.

Their response to Bob's book is predicated on the mistaken belief that forty thousand people would not buy it and one hundred thousand would not read it, nor talk to others about it.

The mistaken belief, too, that a tell-all memoir that curses airline food has gone beyond the pale and a foreign minister who wants to arrive washed and shaved and well-slept at a meeting with Hillary Clinton is a 'tosser'.

For the book is a very good book indeed, rivalling some of Gore Vidal's essays and some episodes of The West Wing, and Clive James's account of going to China with Mrs Thatcher. This excellence cannot be countermanded by a sniffy toss of the head from Julie Bishop – a worse foreign minister – or Alexander Downer, a fatuous cross-dressing dill.

It is there. It is there. And it can be read by anyone.
I note two paragraphs on pages 16 and 17.

The first is about David Miliband, the brother of British Labour leader Ed:

'... forty-six, energetic, bright, athletic and stranded on their back bench ... [David] is passionately pessimistic about Afghanistan. He thinks it will all end up in a messy, tribal, regional chequerboard, whatever is done. He is as pessimistic about British Labour being led by "brother Ed". Doesn't sound like he thinks he can ever become party leader. I tell him to read biographies of Gladstone and Disraeli and be patient: "Anything can happen in politics. Stay in." He needs the patience of politics. The capacity to bide one's time, to survive a decade in the wilderness...’

The second about London's available cultural entertainments:

'A boring National Theatre production of She Stoops To Conquer seen through drooping eyelids (why revive that creaky old thing at all) and a snatched one-hour visit to the Lucian Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (enough time to sicken on the acres of belly and parted groins) on the way to the Eurostar.'

Does this writing show him to be mad, or shallow, or a dilettante not doing his job? Yet the front page of the Daily Telegraph, composed by someone who has not read very much of it, claims the book shows him to be a 'tosser'.

It is as if Winston Churchill's first volume of war memoirs ('I knew I had been walking with destiny') were described in 1945 by the Daily Mirror as the ill-judged work of 'a decrepit old wanker'.

We are in the region of 'guided democracy' now, alas. We are being told we should not read a good book, the best narrative memoir in our nation's history, probably, since, well, The Naked Island.

We must not read it, we are told.

We must not read it. We must not read it. The writer has become insane. Look into my eyes. Insane.

It would be good if Julie Bishop and Carr now debated, say, South East Asian policy in the Sydney Theatre in May at the Writers' Festival. Surely she could find time to do that. But no, she will not. She will not soil her schedule with eye contact with a 'tosser'.

It is bad when Big Lies become the tactic of an incompetent government already behind in the polls.

If history is repeated, these Big Lies are always the first part of a destabilising process that leads to political arrests and an army coup, along Greek, Egyptian and Chilean lines, and then more suppression of freedom of thought in many institutions.

That suppression has begun, of course, in the public service and the tired, scared, impacted sentences of poor, fraught Chris Uhlmann.

And the battleline, if I may put it that way, is this book and what has been untruthfully said of it.

Bob Ellis is a former speechwriter for Bob Carr.

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