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A nerd in your ear, PM - we won

Murray Waldren reports, March 29, 1999

BOB CARR WAS ENJOYING the spoils of victory yesterday. And possibly reflecting on the ironies of the life political. For he is - or was - the reluctant Premier, an old-style ALP loyalist who eschewed ambitions for the Foreign Affairs ministry to accept, in 1988, the poisoned chalice of leading a State party that was decimated and in disarray.

Eleven years on, having seen off four Liberal leaders, having been returned as Premier with an increased majority and having reduced the NSW Liberal Party to its lowest-ever vote, he is the Premier triumphant.

More than that, he has become a genuine Labor hero. For a true believer, it doesn't get much better. Unless it was in the fortuitous confluence of ironies yesterday, as he basked in the post-poll sunshine on Sydney's Opera House forecourt, front row and centre among the flag-waving thousands celebrating Greek National Independence Day.

They had welcomed the conqueror as he settled in two seats away from an Akubra-clad and subdued Prime Minister, whose confidence he has severely shaken, and metres from his adolescent hero, Gough Whitlam, whose praise he accepted with dignity.

And if his pleasure was not easy to discern amid the due gravitas of "a grateful and humble" Premier, for seasoned Carr-watchers the giveaway was in the glint of eye and fleeting smirks glimpsed before sunglasses and solemnity reclaimed Mr Urbane.

And why not? His vanquished opponent, Kerry Chikarovski, was skulking behind closed doors, her discredited party machine was quietly packing up its campaign HQ, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett was calling for resignations, Howard was busily distancing federal issues from State. Such is victory.

Yet, Robert John Carr, the former dux of Maroubra High who joined the ALP in his teens, initially resisted the role. The bush-walking, non-driving, arts-loving, sports ignoramus and self-proclaimed "bookish" nerd had to be press-ganged by party powers into making history.

Strongly aligned with the right of the ALP, he had only ever seen State parliament as a stepping stone to the federal arena (and, ultimately, the foreign ministry portfolio). He considered it a dues-paying experience and was said to be on a promise of the next man in the federal seat of Kingsford Smith.

But then the party was all but annihilated under Barrie Unsworth's leadership in 88. Carr was the only possibility when party power-brokers looked for an alternative. And when the party called, he loyally answered, accepting the lesser stage.

Once in the leadership, his professionalism always meant he would become a formidable practitioner ... even if the press and the public initially saw him as a make-weight pretender. Too many people underestimated Carr. To their cost. It was certainly his strength when he came up against the "impregnable" Nick Greiner, then the wounded John Fahey.

With a face made for radio and a voice forged in heaven, he is an iron-willed pragmatist with a Machiavellian aptitude for manoeuvring friend and foe. And he is tough, emotionally, philosophically and temperamentally, expert at mastering a brief, adept at turning political setbacks into positives. By all reports, he is as demanding on himself as he is on his staff: he does not suffer foolishness and lack of discipline gladly.

He won the press over with a personality seldom seen in public: off-camera, he can banter with the best; he has a reputation as a warm-hearted friend; he uses a sharp wit with devastating skill. But once the cameras are rolling, it's all business. Carr is the master of the meaningful grab for radio and TV, and his pronouncements resound with authority even if, in the analysis, they bear little depth.

Now he has seen off another Liberal challenge, despite strong doubts about his premiership, about what he has actually done in his first term, about his promise-keeping and his policies.

He has persuaded the people of NSW to give him a majority large enough for the ALP to retain power the term after this - with or without him at the helm - and, in the process, achieved a standing far greater than he would have if he had realised his federal ambitions. No wonder he was smiling yesterday.

This article was first published in The Australian
Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1999

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