Ominous Parallels for Labor: Carr and Mandelson

It’s hard not to think Bob Carr has quietly supplanted Wayne Swan’s role as deputy Prime Minister these days. Whenever there is a fire that Labor needs to put out or a triumph that needs selling, the Minister for Foreign Affairs is rolled out all over the joint to put his considerable political gifts to work. Carr is a different generation of politician to most of the current cabinet. He cut his political teeth in the eighties and hit his stride in the nineties as Premier of NSW and the differences are notable. He sounds different, he doesn’t appear to be reciting lines and he doesn’t clutter his speeches with buzzwords. He also appears harder to rattle, he’s willing to improvise and get a bit creative unlike say Stephen Smith who is on message at all times. He isn’t the only minister like this of course, Craig Emerson and Tanya Plibersek are also willing to toss the notes out the window every now and again but Carr does so with unrivaled skill.

He’s also unelected, he spent five years out of the political frontline and was fast tracked back into the spotlight in dramatic fashion to sure up a government that was on the drift. Gordon Brown pulled a similar maneuver back in 2009 when he gave Peter Mandelson a peerage and appointed him first secretary of state, effective making him the deputy Prime Minister. The move was hailed as a bold masterstroke,  Labour went from facing certain defeat to forcing a hung parliament and the Guardian credited it to Mandelson. Like Carr, Mandelson was  a veteran  of the labour movement. He rose to prominence as an adviser to Neil Kinnock, then as a shadow minister to Tony Blair he directed the successful Labour Party campaign in 1997. As a cabinet Minister without portfolio he was considered to be an “Assistant Prime Minister” in Tony Blair’s first ministry. While historians will bicker about their hierarchy of importance undoubtedly the five key players in the first Blair government were Blair, Mandelson, Brown, Alistair Campbell and John Prescott. To be fair Mandelson was a more controversial figure than Carr, he twice resigned from cabinet and was nicknamed by Private Eye as the prince of darkness. After being exonerated by an independent inquiry of any wrong doing he left parliament to work as European commissionaire for five years before Brown recalled him to cabinet as Lord Mandelson of Hartlepool in the county of Durham.

Mandelson was instantly the most distinguishable member of Brown’s final cabinet. The rest of the Ministry seemed infected with a sense of gloom and pessimism as Labour constantly trailed the conservatives but Baron Mandelson exuded an extraordinary swagger, mocking and taunting conservative shadow ministers , in particular the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. If there was a ministerial resignation, a debate, a gaffe by Gordon Brown or a scandal of any kind you could expect to see Mandelson surrounded by journalists and TV crews spinning the story like he was the governments only Minister, oftentimes he was the only one authorized to talk to the press. As  2012 draws to a close and we head into an election year I think we can expect to see a lot more of Bob Carr as the de facto deputy Prime Minister.

It’s a fantastic narrative, an old stalwart is appointed to deputize a Prime Minister and he reinvigorates a languishing party, puts the fear of god into the opposition etc. The footnote to this story though, is that for all his abilities Mandelson fails and Brown loses, a similar fate awaits the Gillard government.

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