Senator Kim Carr wipes down the lectern before speaking during debate in the Senate in 2020.

Senator Kim Carr wipes down the lectern before speaking during debate in the Senate in 2020.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It was Carr who helpedswing caucus numbers for Julia Gillard’s successful coup against Kevin Rudd in 2010,only to shift his support back to Rudd when the former prime minister challenged for the leadership a few years later.

It was also Carr who helpedshore up votes for right-winger Bill Shorten to become federal opposition leader in 2013,delaying the ambitions of Carr’s longstanding NSW Left counterpart (and rival) Anthony Albanese.

And Carr backed former Victorian emergency services minister Jane Garrett’s elevation into state Parliament,then helped thwart her bid to win a safe upper house seat in Melbourne’s west after the pair had a falling out.

Carr was,in his prime,one of the most dominant backroom forces in the Victorian ALP – a party in which wrangling the interests of unions,local warlords who control numbers in branches,and rivals has become a brutal artform. But the stalwart of the Socialist Left comes into this year’s Senate preselection with fewer friends and allies,his authority significantly diminished. He is the old bull in this fight,the target of a potential challenge by Labor forces who want a younger,fresher candidate.

“He is the ultimate survivor of Australian politics.”

Labor member and Melbourne City Council deputy mayor Nicholas Reece

With a federal election on the horizon and senators vying for another six years in office,some Labor hardheads say that the 65-year-old former minister should give up his safe Victorian seat in the interest of party renewal.

But thetakedown two months ago of potential challenger,storied industrial lawyer Josh Bornstein,with a series of stories leaked toThe Australian newspaper,suggest that there is life yet in Kim Carr’s career. Will Australia’s longest serving senator outlive his enemies once more?


A campaign for change

It’s a spring day in Canberra and Labor senator Kristina Keneally is on her feet in the red chamber of the Australian Senate,debating a motion excoriating the Morrison government’s Aged Care Minister,Richard Colbeck.

The deputy opposition leader in the Senate is fired-up,pointing at Coalition members on the other side of the room as she delivers her lines with theatrical flair.

“What we know about this Minister for Aged Care is that he follows the example set by his Prime Minister Scott Morrison,who never accepts responsibility,who hates accountability,and is all about the photo opp and the announcement but never about the follow through!” Keneally bellows.

Behind her in the camera frame is Kim Carr,dressed immaculately in one of his trademark three- piece suits,slumped over in his chair fast asleep.

The footage was recorded in September last year. As Keneally explained to Sky News at the time,he fell asleep because he had “a bad back”. But it has resurfaced in recent months as Carr’s enemies make the case that Australia’s longest-serving senator is past his use-by date.

Labor Senator Kim Carr appears to be asleep while Labor Senator Kristina Keneally is speaking.

Labor Senator Kim Carr appears to be asleep while Labor Senator Kristina Keneally is speaking.

After reaching his professional peak as a minister for innovation,industry,science and research in the Rudd and Gillard governments,critics argue that Carr has not held a frontbench position since he moved to the back benches of opposition two years ago after Bill Shorten lost the election. The prospect of a promotion under Albanese looks uncertain because there is significant animosity between the pair.

The veteran politician continues to sit on several Senate committees,where his imposing figure and policy knowledge can terrify public servants and ministers who are grilled by him. But as one Labor MP put it on condition of anonymity so they could discuss internal matters:“He’s been around for 30 bloody years. Any person who had the party at its heart would have gone some years ago,and certainly should be going now with a really strong plan to support the next generation.”

If Carr has any desire to leave without a fight,he’s not showing it. He declined to be interviewed for this piece,butrecently toldThe Ageand The Sydney Morning Herald:“I’ll continue to serve while I’m making a positive contribution. My main focus is making Labor electable.”

Carr’s future was put firmly on the front pages when Bornstein – whose high profile cases include running the union’s successful case in the 1998 waterfront dispute and representing women at the heart of the sexual harassment claims against High Court judge Dyson Heydon – was touted to replace Carr as part of a new factional deal.

Ryan Batchelor,a think-tank director and son of former Victorian transport minister Peter Batchelor,has also been named as a potential contender with the support of forces aligned to federal MP Andrew Giles.

Josh Bornstein principal lawyer at Maurice Blackburn,last year.

Josh Bornstein principal lawyer at Maurice Blackburn,last year.Credit:Joe Armao

Batchelor is still said to be considering his options but Bornstein’s bid was short lived. Within days of it becoming known,tweets he had posted over the past decade were leaked against him. One included a bitter exchange with former Australian Services Union assistant national secretary Linda White in which he suggested she was a dog who had misplaced her chew toy and likened her to a “poodle snapping at my heels”.

Another Tweet from 2013 noted that Labor’s leader in the Senate,Penny Wong,“would make a very fine Morticia” – a reference to the gothic TV mum from the seriesThe Addams Family – prompting her to release a statement affirming the need to respect women.

Bornstein quickly announced he was no longer considering preselection. He declined to comment when contacted byThe Ageand Herald, but Labor insiders are all but certain about who was responsible for the damage.

It wouldn’t be the first time Carr has prevailed in a challenge. Five years ago,the Victorian powerbroker helped deliver the numbers to prevent then opposition leader Bill Shorten from being defeated at the ALP National Conference ona motion regarding Labor’s asylum seeker boat turnback policy.

Tensions simmered in the aftermath,culminating in Carr’s own left-wing colleagues,including Albanese,Penny Wong,and Tanya Plibersek deciding he should not be part of Labor Left’s shadow ministry line up. In response,Carr rallied a breakaway group which gave him a quorum to demand a position on the frontbench under ALP rules. With the help of Shorten,who ensured the Right backed Carr,he prevailed.

“If ever there was a nuclear war,go around to Kim Carr’s house because after the bombs have fallen you can guarantee he will come out alive,” says Melbourne deputy Lord Mayor Nick Reece,a former Labor state secretary who also worked for Gillard and Victorian premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

“He is the ultimate survivor of Australian politics.”

Unpopular causes

In some ways Kim Carr represents a dying Labor breed. He was born in Tumut,NSW,the son of a boilermaker. He went to a public high school where his interest in politics was fuelled by socialist literature. He worked as a tech-school teacher in the working class suburbs of Melbourne cut his political teeth as a policy adviser to Victoria’s first female premier,Joan Kirner,and was educated at Melbourne University.

In 1993 he entered the Senate to replace John Button,the man who reduced much of the car industry’s tariff protection.

Kim Carr as a freshly minted senator in 1994.

Kim Carr as a freshly minted senator in 1994.Credit:Patrick Cummins

In addition to being Minister for Innovation,Industry,Science and Research,Carr also held a broad range of other portfolios throughout his career,including higher education,manufacturing,and human services. He was unashamed about his support for the car industry,placing him at odds with bureaucrats,economists and some colleagues who viewed it as a waste of public money to keep pumping taxpayer money into manufacturing. As more of Australia’s manufacturing capacity was shipped overseas,Carr often warned about the danger.

Some view Albanese’s recent promise to establish a $15 billion “national reconstruction fund” if Labor wins the next election as a sign that the times have swung once again behind Carr.

Announcing the fund ahead of Labor’s special policy conference in March,Albanese argued the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted significant weaknesses in Australia’s manufacturing industry and that billions of dollars ought to be spent ensuring the nation could make more of its own goods in future.

“There are not many people in politics that have championed the idea that this country needs to be more self-sufficient like Kim,” says former ALP state assistant secretary and Carr ally,Kosmos Samaras. “Those who want to follow in his footsteps will not only need to fill some big shoes but perhaps realise that championing unpopular causes can at times be the right thing to do.”

He also steered through Parliament Research&Development tax credit laws,which effectively reduced the cost of R&D in Australia and set up a blueprint for a sustainable pharmaceutical industry.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith,who worked as the senator’s chief of staff over several years,recalls a boss who was passionate about policy and wanted to foster an environment where innovation could thrive. It “wasn’t just about building cars” she says,but “about building capability”.

“One of Kim’s great strengths is that he employs people who will disagree with him... He likes a good argument,” she added.

“It’s clear that he’s there to make a difference. He is not someone who sways with the prevailing breeze.”

A new generation

Nonetheless,his enemies are once again circling. With an election looming,Carr is said to have lost the support of much of his own faction and two key unions:the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and the Electrical Trades Union,who had initially backed Bornstein.

United Firefighters Union chief,Peter Marshall.

United Firefighters Union chief,Peter Marshall.Credit:Eddie Jim


His main support is now coming fromUnited Firefighters Union boss Peter Marshall,the man best known for his role in a long-running dispute with the Andrews government and its former emergency services minister Jane Garrett.

The push for renewal is not so much about gender equality – two-thirds of the Victorian Left’s federal members are women – but the need for Labor to usher in a new generation of talent.

A clear challenger has not yet emerged,but friends and foes acknowledge that whoever puts their hand up will need broad support across the Left to knock off Carr.

This is not the first time Carr’s career has been on death row. As one Labor MP put it:“He’s the great cockroach of the ALP.”

Carr’s view is slightly different:“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,” he toldThe Mandarin last year.

“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,an arrangement where you go from doing something interesting to making money when you’re tired of it. It has to be a full-time,lifelong commitment.”

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