SKY News Australia, Australian Agenda with Peter van Onselen and Greg Sheridan

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

7 October 2012

PETER VAN ONSELEN: And to discuss domestic and, more so, foreign affairs issues, we're joined now by the Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

Thanks for your company.

BOB CARR: Pleasure to be here, Peter.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you off the bat about Tony Abbott? In following on from Paul's editorial, I've heard around the traps that within the Labor Party you've made some pretty strong remarks about your concern that if he becomes prime minister, Tony Abbott could be a very long-term prime minister, contra to what a lot of other people have been saying, that he might sort of fly off the handle early. Is that true?

BOB CARR: I don't recall saying that, but certainly my view is that you've got to be taken seriously. I think he's learnt at John Howard's knee. I think he'd be a more erratic and extreme version of John Howard, but he'd been attempting, were he to win, to emulate the Howard pattern of long-term success. So that makes the next election very important for my side of politics.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: On another matter, and I don't want to dwell on this but one of the domestic issues during the week of course was Alan Jones's comments, which were reported last Sunday in the Sunday Telegraph. Now conservatives have been frustrated by the level of angst that has been thrown in Alan Jones's direction. I've certainly thrown a fair bit in that direction myself.

One of the things that they raise is Bob Ellis and the fact that on his blog, so publicly, not at a private function, he made some pretty disparaging remarks about the Prime Minister, as he put it, fleeing back to Australia for the personal circumstances that she had. He's written speeches for a long time for various Labor people I think including yourself. Do you repudiate him every bit as strongly as you and your colleagues have repudiated Alan Jones?

BOB CARR: I deprecate that attack, but it wasn't in the Jones' category. He hasn't written speeches for me for I think seven years. I deprecate that attack, but it's a bit different to say the Prime Minister was wrong to return to Australia for the death of her father; she should have lingered in Vladivostok. It's a bit different to say that and to say the Prime Minister's father — it's unpleasant to recall this — the Prime Minister's father died of shame at his daughter's performance. They are in a different category.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Bob Ellis also wrote that she had, quote, girly tears. I mean that's …

BOB CARR: Bob Ellis has got a private blog, and again that second remark is not in the same category as taunting the Prime Minister with her father's death, which was pretty monumental in its lack of taste and lack of compassion, and I hope we move beyond this. But the conservative side of politics has got to accept that a lot of people will see that as emblematic of the extremism around Tony Abbott, that Tony Abbott has got a reputation for being erratic, for being extreme and when Alan Jones, who is his major media sponsor, says something like that, there is alarm at just how far Tony Abbott would go were he to be Prime Minister.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: I'm surprised you don't see them as the same thing though, to be honest, because I think that they're equally as deplorable.

BOB CARR: The Bob Ellis remarks?

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Absolutely. Bob Ellis said she was fleeing Australia…

BOB CARR: Bob Ellis has got a private blog and no one would see him as a primary policy adviser to the Labor Party, and, until it was convenient for the Liberals to dig into his blog and choose this, I don't think many people took any notice of it. But there is a qualitative difference between taunting the Prime Minister with the death of her father by saying he died of shame and saying it was a bad judgment call to come back from Vladivostok for the family funeral.

PAUL KELLY: Senator, I know Labor will continue its campaign against Tony Abbott on the grounds that he's erratic and attack his economic policies and so on, but can I ask you: do you think that Labor will also continue to campaign against Tony Abbott on the grounds that he's got a problem with women?

BOB CARR: I just don't know, Paul. I'm out of the country and I'm working on a different agenda…

PAUL KELLY: But you're a senior minister. Surely you're involved in this.

BOB CARR: I'm not. I've got another agenda, several of them pressing on me, and I haven't explored the tactics of this.

But Tony Abbott will be judged by what his policies — by what his policies and his stance represent for women voters. He'll be judged by women voters in that sense, and I think that Labor doesn't have to say that much more, that behind all the fuss and contention there are softly committed women voters making up their own minds on this, as Australian voters do. There's a lot of good sense out there and if one side goes too far in the flamboyance of its attacks, or if someone else just presses too far in being themselves and that self is a little threatening or a little unpleasant, then those voters will work it out for themselves.

PAUL KELLY: Exactly. You've said that Labor really doesn't have to say any more. Does that mean — in terms of decoding that, is what you're really saying that you don't think there need to be public and explicit attacks any more by senior ministers on Abbott on the grounds that he's got a particular problem with women? Is that what you're saying?

BOB CARR: My sense, without having discussed it with any colleague, with any adviser of the Prime Minister, is that whatever points needed to be made have been made here, and Tony Abbott, in deploying his wife to make entirely valid points from his point of view, is entitled to feel he's made his point. But I think — I just want to say women voters will make up their own minds here.

PAUL KELLY: Well what's your impression of the intervention by Margie Abbott? What did you make of it?

BOB CARR: Words of Shakespeare: maybe she does protest too much, but she is obviously a charming woman and the Liberals are entitled to bring her on to the political debate, but again …

PAUL KELLY: So they're entitled to — so they're entitled to use her?

BOB CARR: Of course they are. Of course they are but, again, the fact that she's been recruited, in an entirely legitimate fashion, suggests that Tony Abbott feels vulnerable here. So any observations made by the Labor team about the threatening stance his policies represent to the status of women in Australia has obviously been made. But I think we move on and assume that Australian women voters, like Australian voters in general, will find their own way to forming — settling on conclusions here.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator Carr, can I ask you about this then, because the polling shows — it's interesting — Labor is trying to, you know, basically point out that women voters have a problem with Abbott. The polling supports that, but the polling also supports that male voters have a problem with the Prime Minister. How do you explain that reality?

BOB CARR: Gee, I don't know, but all I can say is that like everyone on the Labor side, I'm pretty encouraged by the trend line in polling recently.

GREG SHERIDAN: Mr Carr, could I change the subject entirely? You were subject to some strong criticism this week from a woman, Pippa Bean, who had some troubles in Libya and claims the government abandoned her. What is the truth of that incident?

BOB CARR: Well I've taken out the timeline here and let me say that Ms Bean lives and works in Libya. She lives and works there; she wasn't a visitor on a humanitarian mission who got arrested and stuck in a prison in Zintan by armed militia like Melinda Taylor. She lives and works in Libya.

And when she was held up by the police at the airport and prevented from leaving, she made contact with the Australian consul in Cairo. Within two days, he arrived in Tripoli. She made contact, she got support, and our consul flew from Cairo to Tripoli and after arriving there, he escorted her to a meeting with Libyan officials. With the UK embassy officials we were put in contact with her in the meantime and consul officials escorted Ms Bean on September 30 to the airport for her departure from Libya.

Now I don't care if she says that I abandoned her, which is plainly untrue, but I am offended on behalf of DFAT people who worked very, very hard, and the politics of Libya are unsettled and complex but they were there on the spot within 48 hours and in the meantime had attended to her needs.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: So how do you explain her feeling so aggrieved?

BOB CARR: Well I don't know but on the basis of those facts — they're there, they're agreed and that's the record of our intervention — she cannot say for a moment she was abandoned by her country. And again, the fundamental difference with the Melinda Taylor case is very clear: Melinda Taylor was there from the International Criminal Court, she was seized by armed militia, she was stuck in a prison.

Ms Bean lives and works in Libya, was delayed in her departure but not detained, not put into prison, and by the authorities, not by an armed militia. And we were on the spot. We were on the spot with an embassy official from Cairo within 48 hours.

PAUL KELLY: So you're quite happy. I mean are you completely satisfied with the Australian government's response?

BOB CARR: Absolutely. Absolutely and I think — I don't think any other government in the world, where there's no resident ambassador, would be able to point to a better response, a better response than this. And I just remind Australians if when you are overseas in a different jurisdiction, you are subject to the laws of that jurisdiction. We'll do everything to help you and we always do as far as I can judge, but it's hard to imagine any circumstances, short of an amphibious assault by Australian forces on Tripoli, that could have rendered more satisfaction.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator Carr, you — I think you were overseas at the time but you would have had drawn to your attention the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, splashed with on this very subject. Now that happened actually — followed the day that the arrest and charges for the former Labor Party president, Mr Williamson, had been laid, yet they still splashed on this issue. Did you feel that that therefore obviously was a beat up, or did you feel that you didn't get a fair hearing in that?

BOB CARR: I could not believe the Sydney Morning Herald front page. I mean if there were a Walkley award for beat ups, that would get it. Abandoned by…

GREG SHERIDAN: Did they ring you first before they splashed that one?

BOB CARR: I'm not aware they did, but we would have provided them with this timeline as we provided it to other media organisations making enquiries. But an Australian aid worker who lives and works in Libya, chooses to live and work in Libya, is delayed in her departure from that country, and with 48 hours we have flown into Tripoli an Australian consular representative from Egypt. You can't say you've been abandoned by your country. And in the meantime, there've been strong representations to the government of Libya.

GREG SHERIDAN: Mr Carr, can I change the subject again, off these tawdry, trivial consular matters on to high policy, where you live as a native? You've just been in New York, lobbying for the United Nations Security Council bid for Australia. I want to ask you how we're going, but I want to ask you this too: I'm told the DFAT assessment is very optimistic and it's based on this, that we have a sufficient number of pledges from countries to suggest that we will beat out that geo-political powerhouse, Luxembourg, for the last place and that the only doubt is whether the pledges are honest or not. but — so my question to you is two part: how's the bid going and do we have those pledges?

BOB CARR: Yeah Greg, I've got to insist here. First of all, I wish you were right but I've got no DFAT advice to that effect. This is very close. At best it is very close. You say Luxembourg; you refer to the smallness of Luxembourg compared to the middle-power status of Australia but, don't forget, it was Portugal that beat Canada, and if any middle power had an even more admirable admiration of middle-power diplomacy and activism, liberal internationalism than Australia, it was Canada two years ago.

So there are swirling cross currents in General Assembly politics. But beyond that, we've got the challenge of having entered this six or seven years after the other two and many countries had made commitments.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: So why did we do that then? I mean wouldn't we have been better off not to have rushed it? A lot of people have said that in their commentary, that, exactly as you say, coming in late has probably cost us our chance here and we would have had a better chance if we'd aimed further forward.

BOB CARR: Well I'm not sure. It was some time ago, 2008, when my thoughts were on other things. But I think Australia's reputation was strong enough, especially with the advent of the Rudd government, the impact of the apology, the signing of Kyoto, the lift in our reputation in the developing countries.

I mean that — I had to, just to divert for a moment — I was meeting 14 Caribbean nations at a meeting in New York and I referred to the small support we gave some work there they'd done commemorating the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and one of the permanent representatives of the Caribbean nation said, we welcome that support and we know that it's done from an ethical basis — those were her words — the ethical basis of a country which delivered an apology to its Indigenous people, and I was quite struck by that.

So there would have been adequate reason, supported by DFAT advice in 2008, to believe that lift we had gave us a reasonable chance despite entering the race late. So — and I've also been struck entering this job by the high level of support this bid and this bid at this time has had from DFAT professionals.

GREG SHERIDAN: Mr Carr, in the time of our bid, we've somewhere between tripled and quadrupled our aid to Africa. A lot of professionals think this aid is misspent, spread too thinly over too many countries, doesn't support our coherent objectives of focusing in the Asia-Pacific. Can you, hand on heart, say that the massive increase in our aid budget, at a time when DFAT has been sacking hundreds of diplomats and can't meet its core tasks, has not been one speck affected by our United Nations Security Council bid?

BOB CARR: Greg, here is my hand; here is my heart. Eighty seven per cent of our aid goes to the Asia-Pacific, 87 per cent of our aid goes there. It trains police in Vanuatu, midwives in Cambodia; it's getting rid of malaria in Solomon Islands; it's reducing the rate of maternal death per 100,000 births across the Pacific; and that's where the bulk of our aid goes. Indonesia is the biggest recipient of Australian aid and it's hard to make a road journey anywhere in Indonesia and not cross bridges built by Australians.

But here's a story about our aid to Africa. I was at a commonwealth meeting in London and I met Bernard Membe, the Foreign Minister of Tanzania and before he could say anything else, he said, your aid is very good for us. He said, I know a bridge; the bridge was built by your ambassador, your high commissioner in Tanzania. He said that bridge enables farmers to get to their fields, saving, I think he said, an hour each day, and he said it's also stopped the kids being taken by crocodiles.

GREG SHERIDAN: With respect, Mr Carr, you're not answering my question. The question is, has our aid [indistinct] been effective?

BOB CARR: Your observations bristle with a few questions and I'm wending my way to that one. But 1000 scholarships across Africa — yeah, that is spread thin. But I bumped into for example a minister in the government of Somalia who said he was educated in Australia and other officials who claim — and by the way, we've got a huge stake in Africa. We've got an estimated $50 billion in mining investment in the ground, or ready to go into the ground, and all of a sudden we find we've got a lively agenda item with African countries because the Australian mining boom has spilled over into more than a score of African countries. And I can say Greg, hand on heart, that we would be running a relatively big and generous aid budget were we not a candidate for a security council seat.

GREG SHERIDAN: So it's had no [indistinct], would you say that?

BOB CARR: Yes I would say that.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator, hold that thought. I know you were up for a coffee before we started the show but we ran out of time. we'll get you that during the ad break.

Stay with us. When we come back, we'll continue talking the Foreign Minister Bob Carr. Back in a moment.

[Ad break]

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Welcome back. You're watching Australian Agenda where we're speaking with Bob Carr, Australia's Foreign Minister. Senator Carr, we started the show by me referencing the presidential debate in the United States. You're not shy of a debate yourself. You were pretty famous for it in the New South Wales parliament when you were premier. Who won?

BOB CARR: I've got contacts running on both sides of US politics. My Republican contacts were more upbeat, Peter, even 20 minutes into the debate than my Democrats, and that's been confirmed now. We all follow US politics as a spectator sport, and we know that debates don't always have the impact that they had in 1980 when Ronald Reagan knocked Jimmy Carter out of the race with a surprisingly deft performance.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: That said, though, Senator, there is a fair bit of research showing that debates can have a significant impact. A fellow that I wrote a book with, some years ago, Dr Philip Senior, wrote his PhD on this issue and pointed out that debates can change, you know, the consequence of an election by as much as one or two or even three per cent. Now in a close presidential contest like this Barack Obama would want to be careful, wouldn't he, to have a better performance next time.

BOB CARR: I'm sure the Democrats — we all know the Democrats are focused on that. He's been encouraged of course by the unemployment results falling below eight per cent for the first time in his term.

But the important point for Australia, and this is my perspective, is that we've got strong links with both camps and I've been in frequent contact within our embassy in Washington, indeed talking to Kim Beasley only yesterday about this, and I'm delighted to say that when it comes to the new personnel who might be recruited were President Obama to be re-elected, or the team that would come in were Romney to be in, not only are our embassy's links very, very sound and Australia's links very sound, but I've actually met these people with the Democrats, to replace Secretary of State Clinton.

I had a meeting with John Kerry in April in Washington, Tom Donnellan, the President's national security adviser I met in his office in the White House, and Susan Rice has been known to me, as to you, over many years as a participant in the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, she's now the ambassador to the UN; I know her in that capacity as well.

And on the Republican side, and again these are names that have been speculated upon in the American media. You know I'm not sharing secret intelligence. Bob Zelig, were he to be Secretary of State, I'd be very comfortable.

GREG SHERIDAN: Bob Zelig goes around the world quoting your speech, saying that America is one budget deal away from re-achieving global pre-eminence. I don't know how you got him to do that.

BOB CARR: I said that to him when I met him in Washington when he was in his last days as head of the World Bank and he was rather taken by that point and I've been flattered that he's quoted it. But with the people speculated about in Defence and State and as Republican policy advisers, our embassy's links with them are very, very good.

So the change in personnel with a re-elected Obama or the change in personnel should Governor Romney win, and, by the way, I met Governor Romney and I left him with a strong message about Australia's support, Australia's commitment to its treaty relationship with the United States and he's recalled that with one Republican contact of mine, we are well placed.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But diplomatic niceties aside though, you'd have to concede…

BOB CARR: I'm not sure I can cast them aside [indistinct].

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But you were — okay, to the extent that you can, I mean you have to concede that the current Australian government would have better ties with the Obama administration than Romney, if for nothing else, Wayne Swan has come out slamming the Tea Party, of which the vice-presidential Republican candidate is very much a part of with some of his rhetoric over the years; yourself, on your private blog, despite your reference to Romney when you met him, had previously as a private citizen referred to him as bloodless.

BOB CARR: [Indistinct] completely.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: At the end of the day though, I mean all of that does add up to a better relationship with the Obama camp than the Romney camp, surely?

BOB CARR: Bob Hawke had a very good working relationship with George Schultz when he was Secretary of State under the Reagan — have I got that right? — under the Reagan administration, and you sometimes have this. Certainly based on your book, Paul, John Howard did not have a close natural relationship with President Clinton or with Clinton's administration.

But, I tell you what, should there be a change of administration and Bob Zelig be appointed, for example, I'd be really comfortable about making that phone call in the first days, and should John Kerry, Tom Donnellan or Ambassador Rice be nominated to succeed Secretary of State Clinton, I'd be very comfortable about that phone call too.

PAUL KELLY: Well just on these points, seeing you can't cast aside diplomatic niceties, have you spoken to Wayne Swan at all about his attacks on the Republicans? I mean what's the point of this?

BOB CARR: No I haven't but I did say, when I did interviews and spoke to people in New York, that our relations with the Republican side are very, very robust and we have no difficulty about lines of communication should there be a change of administration.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Despite the Deputy Prime Minister?

BOB CARR: Yeah, I think there is allowance made for people venting their political views, and, by the way, there is no intervention from my side of politics that would compete for a brief, shining moment with John Howard saying a victory for this man, Barack Obama, would be a win for Osama Bin Laden. Now if you're talking about clumsy intervention in US politics, that takes the prize. It was so uncharacteristic of John Howard of course. It was all the more striking and I think John Howard implied in an interview with you about his foreign policy experience. It is not something he'd want to revisit.

GREG SHERIDAN: I think that certainly was a low point in the Howard foreign policy. I wonder if we can switch again. I know the panel wants to ask you quite a lot about China but I've been struck lately at something you've been saying, which is that we have no problems with China's military modernisation.

Now I — having heard you say that, I went back to the 2009 Defence White Paper and 2009 Defence White Paper, which is still extant government policy, says that we have a lot of problems with China using unconventional weapons such as shooting down satellites from space without telling anyone in advance; such as its massive investment in cyber-warfare and the enormous number of cyber attacks around the world traced to China; the lack of transparency in its military budget. All these things are cited in the 2009 Defence White Paper and in the private version of the White Paper it was also cited how many of China's new weapons, like the anti-ship ballistic missile, are clearly designed to hurt and intimidate the US Navy.

Now doesn't that all add up to something about which we do have a legitimate concern, or has the government changed its mind on that and do we raise these matters ever with the Chinese in dialogue?

BOB CARR: Yeah. There's been no change of mind. The Australian policy on this is to say China's military modernisation is a matter for China and that it's not astonishing that a country rising in economic clout like China's will want to secure its sea lanes of communication, for example, and want to have a navy and an air force able to do that. But I quickly — mostly I remembered to attach the qualification and that is that more transparency is something required. More transparency would put China's immediate neighbours at a greater sense of ease.

Of course, the Chinese — their military modernisation has got to be seen in context with the military modernisation of all countries in the region, but it's not — as Henry Kissinger said, it would be astonishing were China not to modernise its military.

PAUL KELLY: Well can I ask you about Kevin Rudd because he's had a lot to say about China this week? And in particular he's talked about the change of leadership in China and given very strong views about this. What he's argued is he believes that we'll see more pro-market economic reform in China as a result of the new leadership; we'll see more privatisation; we'll see more action on the currency. Do you agree with those views?

BOB CARR: Yeah I think that his speeches have had a number of very useful contributions. That is one of them. I'd like to return to another in a moment.

The Chinese are very good at criticising themselves, at analysing their own performance and they're aware of a landmark report by the World Bank that says China must have another bout of economic reform. It must trust market forces more than it has so far. And they'd be aware that unless they do that, especially facing the demographic trend in China, the aging of the population, then they will be trapped in middle-income status. They won't make the sort of trajectory that Japan and Singapore have made to high-income status and they're aware of that challenge. So I think Kevin's analysis was spot on.

The other important point in one of his speeches was the value of confidence-building measures between China and the United States, more military to military cooperation. So if we minimise the chance of a naval incident producing a clash — the Lowy Institute produced an excellent paper by Rory Medcalf, I think a year ago, on this very thing: the need to get confidence building between the two of them. And, you know, in a report I've just had, there are three meetings devoted to military cooperation coming up between China and the United States.

GREG SHERIDAN: But, Mr Carr, on confidence-building measures, my American friends tell me that they, the US Navy and State Department, have constantly suggested at-sea confidence-building measures between the US and China — codes of conduct, hotlines and so on — and that the Chinese simply aren't interested. Now is that your information? And the Americans say to me this is because they don't want anyone to know what they can do.

BOB CARR: I, too, have heard this from the Americans, but at the same time there are at least three meetings planned, at assistant deputy secretary and deputy secretary level, that will deal with this agenda.

So we've got the Americans and the Chinese discussing this, talking this through, but certainly Australia, and I think all our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific, would breathe a lot more easily were there a quantum increase in confidence-building, military-to-military measures, minimising the chance of a clash.

I mean you've seen recently the Taiwanese vessels go into the disputed islands in the East China Sea and it's very disturbing to America. It has a defence relationship with Taiwan as it does have with Japan. You've seen a Japanese response to that with flyer hoses(*) at sea. We should never overlook the fact that World War I nearly began in 1908 because of a naval incident, the Tangier incident.

The other thing — so I think it was very valid for Kevin Rudd to talk about that, but it is a lively, unresolved issue.

PAUL KELLY: Well can I just ask you — can I just ask you about Malcolm Fraser? I mean he's recently made yet another very strong speech, warning that we are close to the United States, that our relationship with the United States now contains grave dangers for us in terms of dealing with China. Your response.

BOB CARR: I don't dismiss out of hand what he says, the whole Hugh White school, the intervention by Paul Keating. I think in all these speeches and commentaries there's a challenge to Australia to think about the future, to think about what will be developing to our north over the next 20 or 30 years and to think of alternative ways of working through our security challenges. But I would say — and, by the way, we were talking about Africa earlier; I've got to pay tribute to Malcolm Fraser, a person I respect, for his deep-seated hostility to racism.


BOB CARR: And we're still drawing on the stock of good will when we [indistinct].

GREG SHERIDAN: Did you admire his long commitment to the Vietnam War when he was Defence Minister and Army Minister?

BOB CARR: I thought that was mistaken, Greg, but I just want to say about China and the US. People say we've got to choose one between the other. I noted carefully the comments of respected business figures, James Packer and Kerry Stokes, but I just want to drive home the point that the Chinese and the Americans themselves say their relationship is excellent. They say it's very good. I've heard that in the White House when I visited, I've heard it elsewhere and it's confirmed by high level engagement in recent times.

And I know it's too early to talk about any easing in the conflict in the disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, but I think Americans are somewhat relieved that their engagement with China is taking place and providing some relief from fears of a sudden clash.

I just want to underline the US-China relationship with excellent, therefore Australians should not get into a lather about this question of having to choose between our longstanding security relationship with the US and our economic, and other, ties with China that are so very important.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator Carr, speaking of having to choose between two options, as a slight aside, Paul Kelly talked about Kevin Rudd before and his interventions rhetorically in relation to China. It's been coming up on eight months now since the February challenge that he had against Julia Gillard where he stepped down from the frontbench.

How much longer does someone with the experience of a former prime minister and former foreign minister have to sit on the back bench before they can come out of purgatory if you like and re-engage on the front bench and start contributing in that more meaningful way I guess to the government, not just to their local electorate.

BOB CARR: Well what answer do you want, Peter? What am I supposed to say to this question?

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well what you do…

BOB CARR: [Indistinct] I say to this question. I might. The issue of Labor leadership is resolved and Julia Gillard is going to lead us to the next election.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: I don't mean as a leader. I mean is it a situation where Kevin Rudd as long as he's in parliament and as long as Julia Gillard is Prime Minister they can't work together…

BOB CARR: Peter…

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Is there a time…

BOB CARR: Peter, I think we've got to relax about former Prime Ministers. We've been speaking about Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating, John Howard. John Howard gave an excellent speech on China that I praised when I was interviewed on the ABC's Lateline. I thought it very balanced. I think we've got to accept that someone with Kevin Rudd's policy experience is going to contribute, indeed he'll be invited to fora where he is expected to contribute, and there'd be something, like China's military modernisation — it would be astounding were it not happening.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But are you saying that there's no point at which he could work on the front bench again with Julia Gillard. Say for example if the polls shift, there has been some shift and she pulls off a miraculous victory at the next election, is there no chance…

BOB CARR: Peter, Peter, it's not up to me to determine this. I don't — I don't…

PETER VAN ONSELEN: You must have a view.

BOB CARR: I'm happy to serve and I'm not in a position to shape this.

GREG SHERIDAN: Mr Carr, could I take you back to China for perhaps a final question on China? Is there the prospect of Australia and China instituting a more formal government-to-government dialogue, and if so, where are we up to on that, and what has happened on that?

BOB CARR: Yeah. Dennis Richardson, the head of my department, shortly to move to Defence, was in Beijing recently to talk about this. I guess it's what's to referred to as architecture. Do you want a more formal prescribed meeting between Australian and Chinese leadership …

GREG SHERIDAN: At ministerial level?

BOB CARR: At ministerial level or at the level of officials, and the Chinese are entitled to take their time about determining whether this suits them, and I'm pretty relaxed about how these discussions go.

GREG SHERIDAN: What was their response?

BOB CARR: Wanting time to assess it and to think about it. I'm not someone who gets too excited about architecture. I like a bit of — I think there's a case to be made for a bit of clever or brilliant improvisation from time to time but — and I don't think your problems are solved simply by fixing regular consultations. But this notion does have value. It does have value.

GREG SHERIDAN: Did Mr Richardson see the Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi?

BOB CARR: No, he didn't see the foreign minister but he saw, I think he saw an assistant foreign minister about this but I'm not certain; I'd need to check. But it's on the agenda, we're talking about it and I think China's entitled to take whatever time it likes to settle on the form of regular consultation that suits it. we would like to have it, like to have it but I don't pretend for a moment that that sort of architecture is substance.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Stay with us. We're going to take a commercial break. When we come back, lots more to talk about in the foreign policy space. The Prime Minister in the next few days is about to head off for her first trip to India. We'll be seeking the views of the Foreign Minister in relation to that. back in a moment.

[Ad break]

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Welcome back, you're watching Australian Agenda where Greg Sheridan, Paul Kelly and I are speaking to Australia's foreign minister Bob Carr. Senator Carr, the Prime Minister is about to make her first trip to India I think, only the second by an Australian Prime Minister since Labor came to power in 2007. Have we neglected that relationship?

BOB CARR: No we haven't and we worked very hard for example, when there was that awful regrettable string of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne, Stephen Smith, I think other ministers were up there very quickly. I spoke to the Indian Foreign Minister in Phnom Penh a little time ago, he expressed satisfaction in what we had done, and how that bewildering development had been curbed.

The relationship is in good working order, and the thing the Indian's wanted out of this most was a decision to sell them uranium for the peaceful development of nuclear power, which is a major strategic goal for them and I think an environmental plus for the planet.

GREG SHERIDAN: Mr Carr, on uranium, I'd have to contest the idea that we haven't neglected India. We're the Asia nation of the West, and in five years of Labor government there has been one prime ministerial day from Australia and India — one. Barack Obama, Dave Cameron have both spent a lot more time in India than any Australian Prime Minister. But on the uranium stuff, are we now near to negotiating the safeguards agreement which would allow the sales of uranium to actually to actually go ahead?

BOB CARR: Yes we are, and the Indians are happy with the progress on this, we always, where there is the sale of Australian uranium, we always have a treaty that governs it, and puts in place all the safeguards we'd require — IAEA and the rest. Non-proliferation references, and a recently announced one with the UAE.

GREG SHERIDAN: Will we get an announcement during the Prime Ministers visit?

BOB CARR: I'm not in a position to announce what the Prime Minister is going to announce. But the relationship is in quite good working order, and again, like discussing the architecture of regular consultations with China, I think Greg too much can be made of form here, that is prime ministerial visits. If you refer to the substance, there is a very comfortable working relationship.

GREG SHERIDAN: But would we be months away from actually beginning to sell uranium, or is that still…?

BOB CARR: Look, the Prime Minister is heading there; let's leave it at that.

PAUL KELLY: Don't you think it is a bit intellectually offensive for Australia to be exporting uranium around the world with our proper safeguards agreements for the development of nuclear power around the world? And yet we have this obsession in this country where we can't even debate the issue.

BOB CARR: It is interesting. I think it is noteworthy. I think the basic reason for it is the cheap, clean — relatively clean coal. I mean clean compared with coal from other nations…

PAUL KELLY: But we're supposed to be getting out of coal?

BOB CARR: … that Australia's got. There is a curious mental block in Australia, against this…

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Largely within the Labor party, I mean the Labor left is where the mental block is.

BOB CARR: It's government policy; it's government policy. Not to open this up, and I'm not going to depart from government policy.

PAUL KELLY: You seem to be suggesting, well, but you've clearly said it's a curious policy, in other words it's a bizarre policy isn't it?

BOB CARR: It's more or less supported by the Australian people. It's become more entrenched after Fukushima, quite understandably, you've got to analyse Fukushima more closely before you can reach, I think a more sustainable view about what happened and what could happen in different circumstances.

But I think after the headlines generated by Fukushima, Australian's aren't ready to have this debate, and we shouldn't devote intellectual energy to the debate. But in the mean time we recognize, and here's my perspective, and that is, if China and India, instead of building coal-fired power stations, are going to power their industrialisation, and light their houses from uranium, then that's a good thing for the polar ice caps, and the planet.

GREG SHERIDAN: Mr Carr one area where you have given a lot of leadership is on policy towards Myanmar, a country we used to call Burma, I'm glad we know use the same name as the rest of south east Asia. Australia has been forward leaning and a bit out front on this, would you like, we've lifted trade sanctions for example, on Myanmar as I understand it…


GREG SHERIDAN: … would you like the Europeans to follow our lead and not merely suspend, but lift their sanctions all together?

BOB CARR: At a UN meeting, called Friends of Myanmar, I said to the Europeans you need to lift your sanctions. If you're going to have investment from Europe flow into Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world, to give — to give jobs to its unemployed in garment factories, to go through that first stage of industrialization that other south east Asian countries have gone through, then you need to send a message that if a European investor puts money into a mine, or a garment factory in Myanmar, it's not going to be in danger by a reimposition of European sanctions.

So you've got to lift them, not simply suspend them. And Myanmar wants that to happen. I've spoken to maybe half a dozen European foreign ministers, to press the same message, I said we are engaging with Myanmar very, very strongly, and the government of Myanmar appreciates it, and we've become a bit of an advocate of the UN, getting the UN to change the wording in its annual resolution about Myanmar to be more encouraging of a democratic transformation taking place there, but the Europeans definitely have to follow.

GREG SHERIDAN: And do you think the Myanmar government is genuinely committed to these reforms?

BOB CARR: Yes, Yes. Because there's the government, the government of Thein Sein that's seen its party lose I think 43 out of 44 seats in a bundle of by-elections, but it hasn't suspended the reform process.

I remember their going in the Delta, going near Aung San Suu Kyi's electorate, going to visit a school, a school where the teachers had been trained, and the blackboards provided by Australian Aid. And there was a proud parent outside the school, because of the activity around the school that day — my visit, and I saw his t-shirt, and the guy from the embassy said, that's an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt, he's a member of the National League for Democracy. And I said tell him that, tell him I met his leader yesterday. And the message went across, and back came the translated comment, and he said, yes, he saw it, he saw it on TV.

And I thought if, if television in Rangoon is reporting me going to see, a mere Australian foreign minister going to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, then the country has now got substantially a free media. And he's someone that supported the opposition at the last election standing their in his t-shirt, outside a school, where his child is being educated, helped by Australian Aid, and he says he saw me visit the leader, the iconic leader, of the Burmese, of the Myanmar opposition.

PAUL KELLY: Could I just ask on another issue, do you think the Israeli's can be persuaded against a military strike on Iran, or do you think that's the way things are likely to evolve?

BOB CARR: I think it is a running debate in Israel. I would urge Israel to desist from the high adventure here, and I know that they, I acknowledge their feeling that they see, they feel threatened by what they see as provocative and illegal action, illegal in terms of international law, action by the government in Tehran. But I would urge them to persist with sanctions and negotiations.

PAUL KELLY: How grave is it?

BOB CARR: Very disturbing, but I think we've got more time and as the American's have concluded, the government in Tehran has not yet made a decision for nuclear weapons, even while it moves toward giving itself that capacity. We've got time.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator Bob Carr, we are right out of time. One very final question though. Former Labor Party president Mr Williamson being charged from a time where he was Labor president, it doesn't get any more embarrassing for a major political party than that, does it?

BOB CARR: It doesn't.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: All right, we are out of time. Concise answer. Bob Carr, Australian Foreign Minister, appreciate you joining us on Australian Agenda. Thank you very much.

BOB CARR: Thank you

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