Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:13 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:13 | SYDNEY

Downer and 'the left'


Sam Roggeveen


11 July 2008 10:47

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer today mounts a defence of his record against last week's harsh retrospective by Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher. When I linked to the Hartcher piece I noted its personal tone, and Downer is right to complain about that. But it is interesting that Downer reads this 'personal abuse' as evidence of Hartcher's (and the wider political media's) ideological bias.

I have some sympathy for conservative complaints that the political media leans left, but re-reading Hartcher's column, it is very difficult to find evidence of it. The personal stuff aside, Hartcher critiques Downer through a realist lens, as a minister who failed to competently pursue Australia's interests. 

In the same post that contained the Hartcher link, I also said that my personal difference with Downer was that he had thrown his ideological lot in too enthusiastically with the American neoconservative movement. The tone of Downer's complaint against Hartcher and the left hints at why that influence disfigured Downer's personal politics.

The fact that, after a bad day, it was Downer's habit to take refuge by reading Mark Steyn and watching FOX News suggests that Downer revelled in ideological warfare. That makes him anything but unique in politics, and indeed I have known the type before. They like the feeling of being an ideological minority, under siege from the zeitgeist. The combativeness of American (and Canadian, in the case of Steyn) neoconservative commentators would only have reinforced this tendency in Downer.

What's encouraging about Downer's column is how little this actually mattered. Downer makes a solid case that he and the Howard Government can boast of some big foreign policy achievements. Note too that Downer himself boasts of these achievements on realist grounds, emphasising Australia's interests and the regional balance of power.

Australia's broadly bipartisan foreign policy tradition and our circumstances in the world seem to have much more influence on our policies than ideology does. Neoconservatism, I would argue, played a much smaller part in Howard Government foreign policy than was the case in the US. Our involvement in the Iraq war was perhaps the exception, though that too can be readily defended on realpolitik grounds as an effort to bolster the US alliance at little material cost to Australia.

In the best blogging tradition, I offer the above as a series of half-developed ruminations that could usefully be refined through further conversation. I welcome reader thoughts via the Email the Editor button below.