The making of Australian foreign policy – the Carr diary

Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister, (University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2014), provides a fascinating insight into the whirlwind of overseas travel, endless meetings and networking embodied in the working life of an Australian foreign minister.  It is an informative, enlightening and entertaining account of the daily grind from the personal perspective of the author.  But what does it tell us about who makes Australian foreign policy in the context of Chapter 13 of the textbook?

A personal perspective

Carr’s diary entries are focused primarily on his perceptions and personal input into the foreign policy process which at times gives the impression he was operating as a ‘one man band’.  Aside from that, however, it details the pursuit of Australia’s foreign policy objectives discussed in the textbook, including national security (p. 426); national economic objectives (p.426); Australia’s role as a good international citizen (p.428); Australia’s relationship with the USA (pp. 429-430); the importance of the Asian region to Australia’s national security and economic objectives; and the use of bilateral and multilateral forms for discussion, negotiation and networking opportunities: ‘We enter the foyer of the (UN) General Assembly. Foreign ministers followed by flocks of self-important officials, cutting across the public space like migratory waterfowl, as we convene – the nations of the world’…’this fraternity the Foreign Ministers’ Club which consumes such time and energy and may sometimes yield results’ (Carr, p. ix).

Carr’s narrative details his attendance at many lunches, dinners, receptions and breakfast meetings (both formal and informal) illustrating the significance of these forums for promoting Australia’s foreign policy agenda and developing personal relationships with world leaders and other influential players in the foreign policy arena.

The institutional framework

Carr’s book provides an insight into the institutional context in which a foreign affairs minister operates which are examined in Chapter 13 of the textbook.

The role of other ministers discussed on p. 435 of the textbook can be found in Carr’s references to Defence Minister Stephen Smith (Carr, index, p. 499) which are illustrative of the connections between defence and foreign policy.

The role of the bureaucracy (pp 436-437 of the textbook) is apparent throughout Carr’s text, including references to his receipt of briefing notes and advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) (see, for example, Carr, pp 2, 103, 182, 316) and the significant work carried out by Australia’s overseas diplomatic staff in promoting Australia’s foreign policy objectives and maintaining relationships with their host governments. The Foreign Minister’s workload involves reading the myriad of cables coming in from Australia’s overseas diplomatic posts which provide information and context for the foreign policy-making process.

However, bureaucratic influence is not all-encompassing.  Carr, for example, held regular discussions with former Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans whom he describes as ‘my mentor’ (Carr, p. 230) and former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating.  He communicated personally with former Labor leader Kim Beazley who at that time was Australia’s ambassador to the USA.  He injected his own persona into the process when he departed from the text of speeches prepared by DFAT.  For example: ‘Still not getting decent prepared speeches from my department or my staff so I cobbled together notes, added anecdotes, inserted jokes.  A lunchtime address.  You don’t need much.  A joke, an anecdote, a bit of praise for the Yanks.  For what? American creativity, American resilience.  That always works.  Plus eye contact with the audience – don’t clutch a script.  In the end, it ended up a lively speech.  Years of practice sometimes works’ (Carr, p.3).

The roles of the executive (cabinet)  and the significance of prime ministerial power are discussed on pp. 432-435 of the textbook.  Carr’s diary records the exercise of prime ministerial power over foreign policy by prime minister Julia Gillard, for example, her overrule of Carr’s approval for Australia’s UN mission to vote in favour of an Egyptian motion on non-proliferation in the Middle East (Carr, p. 212), her veto of a proposed statement on Israeli settlements (Carr p. 213), a note to Carr that ‘any shift of significance’ on a vote associated with a dispute between Lebanon and Israel ‘needs to be checked with me’ (Carr, p. 255) and a direct instruction from Gillard to Australia’s UN ambassador on how to vote on a resolution (Carr p. 227).  The fact that Carr was instructed by Gillard that ‘all statements on the Middle East have to be threaded through the Prime Minister’s office….must go past her staffer’ (Car, p. 213) also casts light on the input of prime ministerial staff into the policy-making process.

Cabinet discussion on supporting, abstaining or voting against a UN resolution related to Palestinian UN status in which ten ministers, including Carr, spoke against the prime minister’s position of a ‘no’ vote was to no avail.  Gillard said ‘it was her right to decide and she would adhere to her previous position’ (Carr, p. 236).  This caused Carr to reflect: ‘All these repetitions of “it’s the Prime Minister’s call” and “it’s the prime minister’s prerogative” are a reminder that what we have is not cabinet government but prime ministerial government’ (Carr, p. 236).

Factional party politics, groupings for and against Israel in the caucus and the influence of the Melbourne Israeli lobby added their own dynamics to the politics within which the government determined Australia’s vote (Carr, p. 231-238).  Prime Minister Gillard remained resolute that she would insist on the ‘no’ vote until faced with the prospect that a motion for abstention had a strong chance of getting through the caucus.  Carr records that ‘after considering all the facts she favoured….abstaining’ (Carr, p. 240).  A potential leadership challenge from the forces backing the return of deposed leader Kevin Rudd if she had been defeated by caucus was a likely factor in her change of mind. This incident illustrates the power of a prime minister can be constrained if electoral or leadership problems are the result.

There is little evidence of the media having much influence over the Gillard government’s foreign policy.  However, political communication was used by Carr to promote or reinforce the government’s foreign policy: ‘I’m reported in the Australian Financial Review on Friday saying we are aligning our foreign policy with ASEAN, we take the organisation seriously, we recognise its centrality, they were right over Myanmar and we followed them. Merely saying it in the Australian Financial Review means that becomes Australia’s stance.  That’s Australian policy.  The medium is the message’ (Carr, p. 202).


Carr’s diary is a very useful tool for students to gain an insight into how Australian foreign policy is made, including the political and institutional framework in which he or she operates.  Not only is his narrative informative about the policy process,  it is also ‘a very good read’.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

25 April 2014