Imre Salusinszky’s summed up Carr’s elevation in a piece for the Australian entitled ‘The hard Right man cometh’.
‘The biggest achievement of Carr in office was political,’ Salusinszky explained. ‘[H]e rewrote the manual on modern Labor leadership. Alongside his fiscal conservatism, he appealed to the western suburbs by outflanking the Coalition on law and order. He governed by managing the evening TV news bulletins and the morning “splash” in the Daily Telegraph.’
That combination of free market economics and tabloid populism now defines the modern ALP. Here’s, for instance, how an insider explained the prime ministerial style of the man Carr replaces, Kevin Rudd. ‘His most common put-down of officials and his own policy wonks was: “That’s a fine idea, but how do I explain it on Today Tonight?”’
What about on foreign policy? Does Carr bring a markedly different set of principles to that arena?
Salusinszky again: ‘He will not only be as pro-US as Alexander Downer, he will also be able to match his Washington hosts in Civil War history, as well as the history of the Kennedy administration. On a personal note, I spent a week in Israel with Carr and his wife Helena in 2010: his hawkishness was everywhere on display, including when he told our hosts that, were terrorists threatening the citizens of NSW, he would have built a dividing wall here too.’
Carr even shares Rudd’s mildly heretical enthusiasm for the rise of China. But other than that, there seems barely a cigarette paper’s worth of difference between Carr’s views and those of any other right-wing Labor politician.
Now consider the media reaction to Carr’s appointment.
‘Bob Carr’s appearance at her side as the new Foreign Affairs Minister – after the apparent collapse of the deal earlier in the week – was a breathtaking political development.’
‘Every now and again, one is reminded of how utterly transformative it can be when a political leader exerts authority in a surprising way. Twenty past twelve this afternoon was one of those moments.’
‘Julia Gillard has pulled out a sensational reshuffle trump card, recruiting former New South Wales premier Bob Carr to add lustre to her government as Australia’s new foreign minister.’
‘The Prime Minister’s decision to appoint former New South Wales premier Bob Carr as Australia’s next Foreign Minister has been described as a masterstroke, even a game changer.’
‘Breathtaking’, ‘transformative’, ‘sensational’, ‘a masterstroke’: a strange set of descriptors for someone who, in terms of political ideas, represents simply an intensification of the same.
Why this hyperbole? What does it tell us about politics today?
In Australia, neoliberalism is understood largely as an economic model, characterised by the sweeping privatisations that Carr championed in NSW. But, actually, it’s more than that. Neoliberalism differs from a classical free market orientation precisely because it extends beyond the economy to embrace the entire social world, which it then recasts on market lines. The neoliberal project doesn’t just assign to the market those roles previously understood as quintessentially responsibilities of government (such as, say, the provision of utilities); rather, it recasts governance itself as an entrepreneurial project, with productivity and profit increasingly normalised as the criteria to judge success and failure.
In other words, neoliberalism effects a thoroughgoing depoliticisation. Most obviously, this manifests itself in a belief, now shared by almost all mainstream politicians, that government should not intervene in the market. This conviction – a consensus about the role of politicians as simply economic caretakers – already renders out of bounds most of the policies that previous generations of social democrats would have taken for granted.
More importantly, neoliberalism also recasts governance and the democratic process in market terms. The resulting political culture casts citizens as autonomous economic agents, relating to each other and to the state as individual entrepreneurs. The politician no longer appeals to party members, unionists, religious believers or specific communities; instead, he or she addresses individual consumers, touting for their business in much the same way as any other corporation.
At best, then, politics becomes a contest over managerial credentials, with the two parties making carefully prepared pitches extolling themselves as more efficient, better able to get the job done, less prone to gaffes, etc. That’s the favoured terrain of the ‘serious’, Left liberal commentariat: the kind of people who dislike Tony Abbott’s social conservatism but have a soft spot for Malcolm Turnbull.
To illustrate the depoliticisation, consider an episode drawn, pretty much at random, from Trove, the archive of digitalised newspapers. It’s a vignette from Bob Menzies electioneering in 1955.
Boos, abuse and hysterical enthusiasm drowned most of Mr. Menzies’ remarks when he addressed 2,000 in Dr. Evatt’s stronghold of Hurstville tonight. It was the Prime Minister’s first excursion into the Labor leader’s electorate of Barton, and the noisiest meeting of his campaign. Organised groups counted him out seven times and the barrage of interjections was the heaviest in the memory of seasoned campaigners. At one stage a man marched to the dais, shook his fist and shouted abuse at Mr. Menzies till women in the front seats pushed him aside. […] His first words were drowned by screams of “You dirty mug” and “Sit down; you dirty liar.”
“It will be the last opportunity you Communists will have here because Dr.Evatt will be defeated in December 10,” he flung back.
Here was the PM in front of 2000 people, including communists he regarded as a national security threat, with hecklers shaking their fists in his face. Yet no-one considered the episode particularly scandalous. Raucous mass assemblies were part and parcel of electioneering; hecklers – and even the occasional tossed tomato – were simply another peril of the campaign trail.
Compare the reaction to the tent embassy protest on Australia Day. The hysterical denunciation of a small but noisy demonstration, from which Julia Gillard was (as she herself made clear) in no danger whatsoever, represents, on one hand, a shift in attitudes fostered by 9/11. But it also illustrates how unscripted interventions by ordinary people are now seen not as manifestations of democracy but as an attack upon it.
As it happened, Bob Carr expressed this sentiment as plainly as anyone.
Here’s the truth of it. Demonstrations hurt the demonstrators. On the electronic media they sound extreme, bitter, angry. The faces of the protestors are contorted with what looks like hatred. […]
As a Premier I never saw a demonstration that didn’t hurt the side that mounted it. And I was never persuaded by a noisy crowd with a few placards. A carefully mounted case with killer facts was a different proposition.
Now, on one level, this is simply silly. Demonstrations hurt the demonstrators? Yep, those civil rights marches really made things bad for black people in the US! If only Martin Luther King had simply explained a few ‘killer facts’ to the sheriffs in Alabama, all that unpleasantness over segregation might have been done away with!
But, on another level, Carr is merely making explicit the logic of depoliticised politics.
In the neoliberal polity, it makes no more sense for citizens to rally than in does for, say, users of Apple computers to hold a march. In both cases, their role is simply to consume, with the ballot box understood as an extension of the cash register. If the latest iPhone is a dud, buy an Android; if the Labor Party’s been in power too long, vote Liberal. Because democracy is understood as a market, rallies, protests, demonstrations and strikes seem, to the neoliberal, not as expressions of the popular will but as outrageous assaults on the democratic system.
Mind you, that’s not to say that neoliberal politics doesn’t have its mass element. In that respect, Carr’s response to the tent embassy is also illustrative. For, actually, his blog post is not directed at the protesters themselves so much as the political advisors he sees as responsible for them.
[T]o the Mums and Dads at home, in 90 percent of cases, the demonstrators lose their argument as the TV screens blare their shouts and hyperbole and show the amateur placards and the ragbag provocateurs.
What I’m saying is that directing a demonstration towards Abbott was gifting Abbott with a PR win. Just by talking conversationally to the cameras he was going to look good in contrast to shouting, swearing, hysterical extremists. TV is a cool medium. The person shouting in your lounge room is the one who’s out of place. Recall the 1993 Federal election when John Hewson did a daily outdoor rally? Placards, extremists of the Right, shouts…and him forced to yell into a microphone. Reduced to a seven second segment on the news bulletins it looked plain awful. He looked the extremist Keating was trying to paint him.
How on earth did anyone imagine that Abbott could lose in a show down with an angry mob?
If that was what someone contemplated it was a disturbing error of judgment. If that’s what Tony Hodges had in mind he should not have been running press for the PM. (He should, however, be given the opportunity to learn from the error).
Carr takes it for granted that mass politics is something done by the elite with the goal of reaching the masses. That’s the sense in which Carr says demonstrations don’t work – and, in his own terms, he’s probably right.
If, when it comes to policy, neoliberal politics should be understood as arguments over managerial styles, in terms of elections it’s also about the application of modern PR to the business of winning and holding office. Again, the model is explicitly corporate. The advertising campaigns by which multinational soft drink companies sell their products bear no relation to the beverages themselves – Coke, quite unselfconsciously, sells a lifestyle, rather than a drink. In the same way, neoliberal politics uses an arsenal of advertising industry techniques to pique the interest of consumers. Political attributes that in earlier times were thought either innate or a matter of personal talent (charisma, say, or stump oratory) are constructed by focus groups and political handlers.
In the same way as perception is far more important than product to, say, Nike or Pepsi, politics today revolves around the tight control of message and persona, a task that requires a relentless focus on media management. That’s the context, then, in which the media’s response to Carr’s appointment makes sense.
His induction into the Gillard team wrong-footed the Tories and thus won the news cycle for the ALP, which is what political victory now means. There’s no evidence that Carr’s popular – indeed, the fate of Labor in NSW suggests strongly that he’s not – but he’s a ‘gamechanger’ because his appointment fostered an impression of Gillard as a determined leader, an image the federal party is determined to cultivate.
The difficulty, however, is that, if the media has, by and large, embraced a neoliberal understanding of politics, the public often proves infuriatingly reluctant to play along.
In NSW, Carr might have pioneered the strategy of melding neoliberal economics with the hobbyhorses of the Tory press. But, in the end, no amount of Laura Norder campaigns saved his colleagues from utter electoral devastation. That’s the paradox of neoliberalism. There might be a public consensus about free markets, if the question’s posed abstractly. But the specific implementation of neoliberal nostrums – like, say, privatisation in NSW – has always proved massively unpopular.
Hence the peculiar implosion that afflicts modern Labor administrations, where a political honeymoon characterised by high ratings and jocular appearances on TV shows and cheesy media stunts gives way, seemingly overnight, to a sullen hostility, usually centred on a perception that the government has no core beliefs. Yes, bringing Carr on board might have been a ‘breathtaking political development’ in terms of the weekly calibration of media winners and losers. But one rather suspects that, in the medium long-term, it’s merely another step down the road that takes federal Labor to the fate that met its NSW counterparts.