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Will Carr’s foreign minister gig save crumbling edifice?

Citizen Bob Carr became Senator Bob Carr at 12.30 pm Monday and a few hours later the title jumped to Minister Bob Carr.

Probably because I was a member of the NSW parliament for six of the ten years that Mr Carr was premier a few people have asked me about Australia’s new Foreign Minister.

While Carr’s erudite way with words entertained many when he was premier his NSW legacy is looking increasingly threadbare.

The Carr decade in NSW was in many ways a lost opportunity. We can only hope, with the world at his feet as Foreign Minister, that Bob Carr builds a legacy worth celebrating.

History reveals that the Carr decade – 1995-2205 - witnessed weakening of planning laws while developer donations soared, a failure to maintain and expand public transport infrastructure and an escalation in the sell-off of farm land to mining companies.

Carr himself has nominated national parks along with the Sydney Olympics and good governance as his standout achievements as Premier.

Considering the former premier’s own list is fairly light on, one is left with the impression that Carr and his colleagues recognise that they have not much to show for a decade of dominance.

Carr has been fairly successful in maintaining an environmentally friendly image. But delving into his record on green issues reveals many broken promises and limited achievements.

Carr’s failure to honour election promises started when he became NSW Premier in 1995. During the election campaign he wrote to the Greens promising to end the export of native forest woodchips by 2000. The exports and the massive destruction of our unique forest ecosystems continue today, as do the obscene public subsidises for the woodchip industry that Carr increased.

To add insult to this bad policy in 2001 the NSW Labor government, with Carr at the helm, brought in new regulations to penalise forest conservation protesters with $1000 'on the spot' fines for being within 100 metres of logging operations. The fines were ten times those imposed for negligence causing bushfires in state forests or hunting or trapping protected native animals in State Forests.

So many of NSW and NSW Labor’s own problems stem from weak planning laws that determine everything from applications for coalmines to housing estates and shopping centres.

The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act was passed in 1979 by the Wran government and at the time was recognised as world class. This legislation had come out of the Green Ban and Resident Action Group era of the early 1970s when there was strong public backing for meaningful community consultation.

This is a real Labor legacy that Carr trashed.

By the end of the 1990s NSW Labor was banking developer donations and this fine piece of legislation was being watered down in a series of amendments, most of which were back by the Coalition parties.

These ‘reforms’ allowed developers to build on environmentally sensitive land and provided easy approval for coal mines and many other damaging projects with little assessment of the environmental and social damage they would cause.

Mining companies found a friend in Carr. This extended far beyond just coal mining. Carr in the 1990s became embroiled in the controversial Lake Cowal gold mine. Nominated by the Australian Heritage Commission for Ramsar listing, and sacred to the Wiradjuri Traditional Owners, Lake Cowal was opened up as a goldmine under Carr. Canadian mining multinational Barrick Gold was given approval for a 20 year mining lease on the $1.2 billion project. Carr’s tactics in assisting this company proceed with the mine, in face of local Indigenous criticism and opposition on environmental grounds, serves as an example of how the former premier could win over groups to back unsavoury projects.

When Carr set up the Environment Foundation, with reportedly up to $2 million to disburse over the life of the mine, criticism from peak environment groups about the Lake Cowal gold mine fell away. Barrick Gold was granted a "Consent to Destroy" from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to trash Aboriginal artefacts, scar trees and other cultural objects.

Opposition to this project has continued, with local farmers reporting massive drops in the water table which means they cannot draw water from their bores. Indigenous groups have repeatedly called for the mine to be shut down but since Carr established the Foundation there has been little mainstream media coverage of the problems.

Meanwhile Carr continued to ramp up his environmental credentials, giving great emphasis to the challenge of climate change. However, under his leadership coal mines were expanding and new ones opening up. I wrote a blog on his actions at the time under the title ‘Bob Carr the ostrich’.

The under resourced and inadequate NSW public transport system will stand for many decades as a testimony to the Carr government. The former premier along with his treasurer Michael Egan became seduced by so-called public private partnerships as a way to deliver everything from motorways to rail carriages. The bankruptcy and failure of projects like the Cross City Tunnel are testimony to how wrong this direction was.

With his new position Bob Carr has an opportunity to redeem himself. From mistakes lessons can be learnt and here’s hoping the new Foreign Minister stretches his policy wings and makes a positive and enduring mark on Australian politics as a key member of the Gillard government.

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