Surprise: a public intellectual can win votes and influence people

The interviewer, a man of obvious erudition, succinctly leads a world-class military historian and a large audience in the Sydney Town Hall through an insightful tour of the historian’s recent work.

A former journalist, he uses the best of the interviewer’s tools: he elicits and does not instruct; he is unobtrusive but not obsequious, empathetic but not sycophantic. He adds context from his own extensive knowledge.

Who is this model interviewer? Bob Carr, New South Wales Premier and Minister for the Arts.

This event in mid-May in Sydney writers week with Antony Beevor, whose Stalingrad and Berlin explore the outer limits of human inhumanity, was no photo-opportunity for the Premier. It was in a day’s work. Carr still writes book reviews.

Could this happen here? Surely, down-to-earth Kiwi folk wouldn’t put up with such effeteness in a Prime Minister. Sir Robert Muldoon laid down 25 years ago that ordinary blokism rules and intellectuals have nothing to offer practical politics.

In bigger countries men and women of intellect hold high office without compromising either the office or their intellect. Indeed, they even exhibit their learning.

Carr is such a person. Dip into Thoughtlines, a collection of his writing and speeches published last year, and you traverse history from Marcus Aurelius to Richard Nixon, scan novels from Primary Colors to Proust, meet prominent Australians from General Monash to Paul Keating, go on bush walks and to the beach, ruminate on Australian nationalism and socialism’s past and future, welcome Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton to Australia, celebrate Aboriginal art and culture.

Each chapter is a model of clarity and simplicity, effortless reading on big topics. Carr is a consummate essayist.

But definitely not effete. Carr wins elections, three of them in a row now, each for a four-year term, each handsomely. “Gradualism” and attention to the needs and wants of ordinary folk have embedded him in office. The opposition Liberals are bemused and bejangled.

I first met Carr in 1991 in Palmerston North when Mike Moore brought him over to talk to the Labour party conference. In the hour I spent with him, he seemed unremarkable. My most recent brush was at the Queenstown airport baggage claim: he was waiting for his bags, no flunkies in sight, no airs or graces.

Carr demonstrates that there is room in politics for public intellectuals, people not afraid to explore and expound ideas and complex reasoning.

He is not alone in Australia. Federal Labor frontbencher Mark Latham, product of a housing estate, MP for an electorate peppered with them, publicly cantakerous to a massive fault, is perhaps the most inventive ideas machine in Australian politics.

Like Carr, he publishes books, gives lectures and writes essays. His most recent book, From the Suburbs, bubbles with ideas on social democracy, the role of the state in a globalised world and reform of welfare.

Latham wants to redefine his party not as one of the left against the right (though it is that) but as representative of “outsiders” against “insiders”. Modern Labor is composed at its commanding heights mostly of insiders, a Latte elite.

Some of what Latham says sounds rightwing to traditionalists of the left. But he is also unmistakably left. And he is unashamedly an intellectual, a very public intellectual.

He is — sort of — Steve Maharey’s counterpart. They share some instincts and policy inclinations, for example, in valuing “social entrepreneurs”, innovators who know life at ground zero and can improve it. Maharey will next Monday celebrate with 51 of them, with whom the government is working.

Moreover, Maharey reads, and revels in, new ideas.

But, like his leader, Maharey doesn’t publish books. A speech he gave Massey University students last Monday on the “third way”, the guiding light along his recent political path, was no Carr-like essay. It ended with a flight-of-fancy Peter Biggs quote, the antithesis of intellectual enterprise.

Public intellectuals are rare in our politics. Simon Upton, now in Paris, was one. Labour reformer William Pember Reeves, sent to London in 1890s, was one. National’s 1975-84 MP, Marilyn Waring, valued overseas more than here, was another.

Outside politics not many intellectuals seek to lead public discourse. Historian James Belich is one, taking his challenging ideas on to the television screen and to conferences. Theologian Lloyd Geering is another.

Yet at base it is ideas that drive public life, for all this half-nation’s reverence for the practical.

This is recognised in a timely examination of public intellectuals begun this year by Laurence Simmons at Auckland University. He found a marked initial reticence among those he sought to study.

As a mere hack who draws on those who do good thinking, I will be intrigued to see whether Simmons will prod more of our public figures to explore deep ideas with us and more of our thinkers to go public. We could do with it.