Tag Archives: Bob Carr

SWF 2011: A Good Leader is Hard to Find

The reason I am not a politician is that I want to understand.

That’s what the French political scientist Raymond Aron said when asked why he hadn’t gone into politics. The remark came to mind when I saw the number of politicians and ex-politicians in this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival line-up. Maybe there’s room for a separate Sydney Politicians’ Festival, or a Sydney Politicians’ and Political Journalists’ Festival.

Whatever misgivings I might have had, I turned up with 1600 or so others at the Town Hall last night to hear Lenore Taylor, Bob Ellis, George Megalogenis, Bob Carr, Barrie Cassidy and Kerry O’Brien chat under the heading, ‘A Good Leader Is Hard to Find’. Kerry O’B was moderator, and the first thing he did, whether deliberately or not, was to reframe the discussion. He announced the title as ‘Good Leadership Is Hard to Find’. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief, as the shift away from the personal made it a bit less likely that we’d be treated to misogyny-flavoured wit at Julia Gillard’s expense.

The composition of the panel – four political journalists, five if you count Bob ‘Sui Generis’ Ellis, and a former politician who was also once a journalist – made it inevitable that the discussion would focus on the relationship between politicians and the media. There seemed to be consensus that we lack effective or convincing leadership in the Australian parliament, that the interplay between the politicians and the relentless 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame, and that the attention both of them pay to opinion polls adds toxin to the brew. Our leaders are so busy feeding the media beast they don’t have time to think. They’re reduced to selling a message rather than advocating a case, performing rather than communicating. Political coverage is dominated by opinion polls, leadership challenges and early election speculation, with not a lot of room forin depth analytic conversation. Gone are the days when the Prime Minister would chat with journalists at the end of a long day and explain his/her thinking about proposed legislation – when Paul Keating would say to Lenore Taylor, ‘Love, this is what you need to know. The discussion was refreshingly free of blame: the way the media works has changed, and neither the politicians nor the journalists have figured out how to deal with the new reality.

There were no revelatory insights, but it was an interesting evening. Ellis and Carr stood out as phrase-makers, Carr describing himself as an amateur historian, Ellis enacting his familiar contrarian persona. For example, Carr:

In a democracy the normal relationship between people and their elected representatives is mistrust and dissatisfaction. It’s the job of the people to be disillusioned. It’s the job of politicians to disillusion.

Ellis, when asked why the ALP doesn’t adopt what he had just described as an obvious strategy

They do research instead of thinking.

It’s not that the others lacked flair, but as working journalists perhaps they were a little more willing to let the facts get in the way of a good story. So after Bob C made his fourth or fifth remark on the theme that things may be bad but they’ve been ever thus, George M said, ‘I’ve followed many election campaigns but this was the first one where the main candidates feared the electorate.’ And when Ellis spoke of the minority government as ushering in a new era of negotiation and persuasion in parliament, Lenore challenged him: ‘And you’ve seen this happen with which piece of legislation?’

The journoes have their own unrealities. George M told us how his faith in the electorate had been restored when ‘they’ decided to choose neither side of politics at the last election, but to have a hung parliament. No one on the panel said, ‘George, you’re talking nonsense. No one made that decision. All the millions of actual deciders chose one or the other. There was no “Neither” option on the ballot paper.’

There was half an hour of questions. Only one person mistook the microphone for a soapbox.

Premier’s Awards

[Retrieved from 17 May 2004]

Penny’s gone to Queensland for most of this week. I have a busy social and work life lined up to fill the void. Tonight I went to the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner.

My table was fun. These are my dinner companions whose Web presences I found at a click: Chris Cheng, Judith Fox, Judith Ridge, Cassandra Golds, Joanne Horniman. The other two were Chris’s wife Bini and my friend Moira. Two of our number were judges this year; four of us have worked in the same office, though not all at the same time; five of us shared a table at last year’s dinner and in part we were able to take up conversations where we’d left off.

The winners aren’t up on the Awards site as I’m typing this, but probably will be by the time you read it. I expect that Geraldine Brooks’s sharp and charming speech will be posted there too. I will note here what I expect won’t appear there, that among the distinguished guests she named at the start of her talk were two living treasures whom she called simply ‘Gough and Margaret’ – no need for a family name.

Brian Castro, from whom I quoted here a couple of days ago, won the Book of the Year award for Shanghai Dancing. The winners of all the other awards are given advance notice, to make sure they turn up. This one is always given to someone who has already won something, so there is no need for forewarning. As a result, when Brian Castro accepted this second award, he had to adlib, and he didn’t do a bad job of it. ‘I think it was Heraclitus who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, or it’s very difficult to. It’s difficult to come up to this podium twice.’ This was deftly done: Heraclitus was talking about impossibility rather than difficulty, but the twisting of the quote worked, as we had just watched our speaker wend his way through the crowded tables, and perhaps stumble a little on the step up to the microphone after negotiating the necessary handshake with Premier Bob Carr. Then he added another elegant twist. Having spoken earlier of the complexity and size of his book, he now said, ‘I want to thank the judges once again for honouring the difficult.’

Bob Carr seized on the Heraclitus quote and, referring obliquely to Brian Castro’s ethnicity and his own profession (he’s a politician), told us of a Chines proverb: ‘Sit on the bank of a river and wait: Your enemy’s corpse will soon float by.’ (Actually, according to the Googles, it’s an Indian proverb, but that’s just being picky.) Then, as if unable to restrain himself, he quoted Tacitus (or was it Napoleon?): ‘The corpse of an enemy smells sweet.’ I mention this because one of the regular pleasures of the evening is seeing Bob Carr enjoying himself in literary company. Inga Clendinnen, accepting her award for Dancing with Strangers, turned to address him directly and said that she was glad to be receiving an award from him because she knew that for him this evening was personal rather than political.

There were other pleasures. The acceptance speeches were uniformly brief and mostly both moving and witty. I had a number of good conversations. The food was good. The Strangers’ Dining Room looks out onto the Domain and the lights of Woolloomooloo.

Oh, and I was corralled into introducing myself to Bob Carr. He looked slightly bemused, but his handshake was friendly.