Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 06:39 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 06:39 | SYDNEY

The Alexander Downer I know


Bill Bowtell

14 July 2008 11:03

I have known Alexander Downer for 32 years – since we joined the foreign service in 1976 in the aftermath of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Government. We did not hit it off. Rather, throughout our training year we argued, abused and trashed each other at (tedious) length. The escalation of our conflict widened to encompass what became known later as the culture wars, the rights and wrongs of the libidinous 60s and every conceivable point of political difference between progress and reaction. It was tough, unremitting, wildly abusive and a lot of fun.

In all that year, I never knew Alex to shut up, take a backward step or not pay out as good as he got. So forgive me if I am less than sympathetic to Alex’s complaint that Peter Hartcher was somehow too personally critical of him in his recent Sydney Morning Herald commentary. God knows, Alex Downer was not the first Australian foreign minister to be bumptious, egomaniacal, headstrong, wilful and prone to regard his Prime Minister as an interfering impediment to the proper conduct of the nation’s foreign policy. But so what? In broad terms, Alex formulated and implemented the policy settings and orientation of his government, his party and those who backed and encouraged them. 

In my view, the Howard/Downer alignment with Republican/Bush/Cheney neo-conservatism was deeply inimical to our national interests. But Alex Downer was the best man for the job of imposing these policies on an unwilling and unreceptive electorate (and foreign policy establishment). He was the right man to deliver the wrong policies. In the end, his government’s  foreign policy failures contributed in an unexpectedly significant way to the defeat of the Howard Government. 

But I have always believed that underneath his neo-conservative carapace, somewhere buried within Alexander there was a residual dollop of small-l liberalism, as wet and squishy as the politics of the One Nation Tories with whom he consorted in his United Kingdom student days. As Foreign Minister, Alex secured a very substantial expansion of funding for Australia’s international HIV/AIDS programs. He worked tirelessly to persuade and cajole regional governments and ministers to face up to the realities of the AIDS pandemic and to take practical and pragmatic preventive measures to diminish the threat. These policies could not have been more antithetical to the highly ideological and deeply foolish AIDS policies promoted at the high noon of American neo-conservatism. Yet Alex pressed on, ignored the tut-tutting from Washington, and put Australia’s money behind AIDS policies that worked to diminish human suffering. These were not the actions of a zealous neo-con warrior, but rather of a reasonable and sensible pragmatist. 

Whether or not Alexander Downer was an unpleasant person to be around, kicked the cat or was kind to animals should be completely irrelevant to any fair assessment of his period as Foreign Minister. His reputation will stand or fall on a clear assessment of whether his achievements outweighed his failures. I am happy to make the case for at least one policy he indisputably got right.