‘The Father of the Senate’: an interview with Kim Carr

Labor Senator Kim Carr in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

With all the talk of branch stacking, factional fighting, AFP raids, cyber-attacks and the ‘deep state’, we felt the need to talk to a political grown-up – and who better than ‘the Father of the Senate’, Kim Carr?

(Reflecting a long and increasingly anachronistic tradition, the longest-serving MPs in each chamber of the Australian Parliament are referred to as ‘Fathers’, and jocularly as ‘Grandpa Godfather’. Kim Carr became Father of the Senate last year following the retirement of Liberal Senator Ian MacDonald.)

A secondary school teacher before being elected, Kim Carr became a political street fighter, an old-guard unionist and protector of workers’ rights, no matter the personal cost. Of his nearly 28 years as an Australian senator, he spent 23 of those years on the front bench.

When we spoke he was in good humour and he shared invaluable insights into the state of federal politics and the place of bipartisanship.

An interview with Kim Carr

Carr on the ‘Deep State’

“Whoever’s in government, they will be obliged to pursue the secret world. The ‘deep state’ will be maintained irrespective of who is in government because there are certain permanent interests that need to be pursued and it shouldn’t be confused with ordinary matters of state. You can have a view about it, but there is going to be a permanent interest the military and security agencies. The forces of coercion will be operating independent of what the executive is doing. You’re supposed to supervise them [when in government], but you’ll be deluding yourself to think that you know what’s going on in all respects, so don’t confuse the functions of the maintaining the deep state with bipartisanship.”

A new Cold War

“A big problem is that increasing numbers of people do not believe politics and the economy work for them. They are very distrustful that there is any value in politics. It has to be recognised that there are people, particularly on the right, who have been much better at tapping into that level of distrust and anxiety about the future, some will say right back to the end of the Cold War. There’s been a decline in people going to church. There’s a decline in support for public institutions. It’s not just in politics, but there’s a loss of faith in people in public positions and in public authority. We’ve got to appreciate that we’re going to have to do a lot better in understanding why it is that people are so anxious about the future, the effects that technology will have on them and their children. Prosperity is not being shared, and there is a real view out there that the benefits of 29 years of economic growth have not been shared equally.

“People have run the system for their advantage. We saw it in the last federal election. Palmer puts in more than $60 million – he outspends the major parties. He’s able to articulate a position that no respectable politician could possibly argue – he performs the role of Trump. He channels working class votes, that frustration and hostility, to conservativism and undermines the social democratic program. He channels working class people away from the parties of the left and delivers your votes to the right. It’s a profound irony.”

Friendships, fraternities and factions

“In politics, often it is your colleagues who are your enemies. It is sometimes easier to strike up a bit of a conversation with people who are not directly your rivals. Often your biggest rivals are in your own faction, let alone your own party. There are very few friends in politics, genuine friends. I’m an outsider when comes to state politics, but my observation is the state political arena is more of a fraternity. The distances are not so great – so you’re not traveling as much. Sitting hours are different, the structure of the buildings is different.

“I’ve seen 210 people sworn in and leave, some of them twice. How many would you say are genuine friends, like to spend time with? Not too bloody many. You know, it’s just a highly competitive environment. There’s no permanent relationship, just permanent interests. So, I say to the young ones: On that side, you know, you’ve got your opponents, but over here are your enemies.”

Latham’s institutional harm

“I take politics as being a vocation and I’m not one of those who takes the view that it is to be regarded as a short-term commitment. You’ve got to actually develop the skills to allow you to be able to provide a service to the movement through the cycles a few times over. I don’t regard it as something to be faddish about, and arrangement where you go from to do something interesting to make money when you’re tired of it. It has to be a full-time, lifelong commitment.

“It’s now also getting worse because the pension system is changed. It’s been a disaster. Latham’s opportunism caused enormous long-term institutional harm. The pension system used to be designed to keep people there for 18 years. It was designed so you didn’t have to look over your shoulder all the time. Now, the average life expectancy of a federal politician is about seven years. This leads to corruption and members consistently thinking about post-retirement and making a living after politics.”

Carr on bipartisanship

“I think there’s a high level of romance about this [bipartisanship] sort of talk. You know, you’ve got to go back to very basic question. What is politics about? Politics is about who gets what, when and why. A fundamental proposition that our forefathers and mothers came up with in the 1930s and I think it still holds fairly. It’s politics. It is essentially a class struggle and it remains so, and in that context, it has seen to be difficult to get a bipartisan approach on these things.

“Yes, it’s true that many of the bills that are put into the parliament are not controversial. That’s not the same thing as bipartisan. It is obvious that whatever government you are, you have to raise revenue. Whatever the government, there are certain functions of the state that need to be performed. And those are the things that people look to as being bipartisan that to me is not bipartisan. It is just a nature of state operations.

“On the other hand, genuine agreement sometimes happens on matters of national emergency. Occasionally there will be reaching out to find a solution – that is not normally apparent to the general public. Some things that are above the political fray, if you like; that does happen on occasions.”

Strange bedfellows

Last year we wrote an article So long and thanks for all the fish: the oddly polite history of political farewells. Something strange happens when politicians leave the political stage. The other side suddenly becomes much more civil – even affectionate.

When former Labor senator Barney Cooney died last year, former Liberal minister Amanda Vanstone wrote:

“Colleagues of all persuasions come and go but rarely ones like Barney. If you want an example of what a decent, hard-working, committed parliamentarian looks like, you couldn’t do better than him.”

His comrade in arms Kim Carr wrote:

Barney Cooney will be remembered as a great defender of the union movement and advocate of workers’ rights, a great champion of the role of the Senate and its committee system, and as a prominent member of the generation of Labor politicians who cast off the legacy of the 1950s split and prepared the way for the party’s return to power in the state and nationally.

In some people’s eyes, it was ironic that Barney was a staunch member of the Socialist Left. He upheld Labor values while being deeply religious. He was never afraid to defend those who were ostracised or on the margins of society…
Barney was held in esteem on both sides of the chamber and on the cross benches because of the courtesy he displayed both in expressing his own views and in responding to criticism by others. “Courtesy and grace are forever needed in debate”, he wrote. “A civil society cannot be at its best unless constituents treat each other civilly.”

That courtesy was shown to him in the valedictories on his final day in the Senate. The Liberals’ Senator Robert Hill said: “Barney sets the standard to which most of us seek to aspire but rarely reach, in terms of his personal demeanour, his commitment and his values … he is always fighting for the underdog”.’

Other surprising instances of overt bipartisanship have also involved Kim Carr – such as when the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce agreed with Carr’s proposal for ‘seed funding to protect political culture and public debate’.

‘So sit down and take a breath because this is reaching a long, long way across the political divide. Left-wing Labor senator Kim Carr’s suggestion about is worth strong consideration, and, dare I say it, support… Carr has to show how it will be balanced; its integrity depends on an utterly bipartisan mandate. The public square, the open and respectful exchange of ideas about our society, politics and culture is fundamental to a civil society. If Carr can deliver on that promise, he has my wholehearted support.’

Some observations

On factions and branch stacking

Former PM Kevin Rudd sought to make the Australian Labor Party more democratic. He particularly opposed the role of factions in the party, telling ABC Radio Melbourne, ‘Factionalism is an enemy of our democracy and should be put to death.’ Factions are not limited to the Labor Party. Many people will remember Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull being met with laughter and jeers from Liberal Party members at the NSW state council meeting of 2015, after claiming the party was ‘not run by factions.’

Factions can be a useful part of the political process – until they undermine merit, and morph into political perversions such as branch stacking. (No one will forget the gob-smacking, ear-blowing, eye-watering performance of the former Victorian Minister Somyurek.) We need to protect our institutions with vigour. To build a better political system, we need more people from different cultural and occupational backgrounds, and there needs to be a stronger sense of politics as a calling and a trade – one to be learnt, in part, on the job.

That means less of the revolving door, and more time for pollies from all sides to develop respect and even friendships with others. That would be a crucial step towards greater bipartisanship on issues of national interest. Like all tradespeople, politicians need fair pay and an adequate superannuation safety net, set transparently and independently. (What pollies do after politics is another risk to integrity.)

A fairer, more diverse and more merit-based politics could mean fewer scandals – but we still need a federal anti-corruption body. Attorney-General Christian Porter has said he will restart the talks on the Commonwealth Integrity Commission to test the views of crossbench critics who believe the proposed model would be too weak. The search for a middle-ground anti-corruption solution needs to be elevated to the top of the pile. Now is always the best time to ensure integrity in government and institutions.

Australia’s place in a new Cold War

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, people were asking of today’s world: is anyone in charge? And if so, are they grown-ups who know what they’re doing? There is no secret about who would like to be in charge: not the ‘deep state’, but the Russo-Faragist creep state. Compared to the leaders of the democratic West, Vladimir Putin has worked under different rules and to a different timeline. The Russians have used Donald Trump as a tool in a long game, and they have played that game extremely well. (It seems the infamous Steele dossier was largely factual, even the salacious golden parts.)

With Trump using Australia as ‘cover’ to get Russia back into the G7/G8/G9, the stakes for Australian foreign policy are suddenly much higher. Trump’s impact has threatened Australia’s traditional bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and national defence – and it has done so at a time of heightened regional tensions and heightened risk. Australia needs a quick foreign-policy reset, one that ends our forced bromance with Trump, and repositions us as a trusted bilateral and multilateral broker.

Build back better with bipartisanship, bilateralism and multilateralism

COVID-19 provided an opportunity to reset our relationship with China and other countries in our region. Instead, at the end of the financial year, a clumsy announcement was made, on our behalf, of a more ‘aggressive’ military stance towards a world that is ‘poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly’. The figures behind the announcement make little sense: an increase in the military of 800 people over 10years (yes 800, not 8000 or 80,000) and additional funding of $270 billion, also over 10 years; not a huge figure given the bipartisan defence target of 2% of GDP.

Australia’s security depends less on submarines and long-range missiles than on how we help our Indo-Pacific neighbours to prosper. But, since 2013, Australia’s foreign aid budget has shrunk as a percentage of our national income. In the early 1960s, PM Robert Menzies made a point of lifting foreign aid. Subsequent conservative leaders continued the pattern for the rest of that decade. Tim Costello’s message, that Australia’s foreign aid generosity has fallen while Australians have become wealthier, is correct.

Last year’s budget included $500 million over four years for the Pacific infrastructure facility, but it reduced aid for countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Cambodia. We need a strategic pivot not from the US to China, but from deputy sheriff to good neighbour. Our diplomats need to pursue a ‘build back better’ recovery plan with ASEAN, built around growth sectors such as education, health, aged care, advanced manufacturing, zero-emissions power, big-data and the digital economy.

As we approach the final stages of Donald Trump’s presidency, there has been a spike in calls between the White House and the Kremlin; leaders of key American institutions – including the US military – have taken overt steps to distance themselves from the fast-motion train-wreck; and even Fox News may be cutting the cord with the Trump camp. For Australia, cosying up to Trump might have seemed like a smart move in 2016. But part of being a grown-up is admitting we made a mistake.

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