Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 00:56 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 00:56 | SYDNEY

The Downer legacy: Asia, the South Pacific and DFAT


Graeme Dobell

16 October 2008 09:18

Yesterday I started my introduction to this Alexander Downer blog seminar by looking at three parts of his legacy. Today I'll survey four more subject areas, and tomorrow another three.

Starting next week, I will post columns on each of those ten parts of Downer's legacy. But I want those columns to be informed by your views, so these introductions are designed to get you thinking and writing, via the EMAIL THE EDITOR button below.

4. Northeast Asia: Downer’s Asian policy started disastrously in 1996. A few months after taking office, he told Parliament that no Asian Minister had protested at the new government’s axing of a tied aid scheme. China was joined by Southeast Asian countries in stating that they had indeed protested. This was one of the two near-death experiences of the Downer career as Foreign Minister (the other was the scandal over the Australian Wheat Board’s flouting of UN sanctions on Iraq).

In judging the legacy, though, Downer and Howard can be given high marks for juggling the relationships with the US, China and Japan. After being put to the diplomatic sword by China during their first year in office, Downer and Howard turned into capital P pragmatists in dealing with Beijing. At the same time, Canberra built up the sinews of its security relationship with Japan.

5. Southeast Asia: The judgement at the end of 1996 was that Downer might not be up to the task. By the end 1999 (the year of the East Timor intevention) Downer had shown he could perform under the greatest pressure. He had persistence and determination; and also the twin qualities essential for any long-term political career – the stamina and the ego to step up each day and keep swinging.

In 1999, the Indonesia relationship hit its lowest point since the fraught days of Confrontation. Australia sent its troops into East Timor worried that this could be the prelude for a war with the Indonesian military (overt or covert).

The tragedy of the Bali bombings in 2002 marked a bloody turning point in Canberra-Jakarta relations. The role of the AFP in solving the Bali crime was an important element in this repair process. And in the same tragic way, the Indian Ocean tsunami showed again that Australia could have some role in helping Indonesia. The Lombok treaty is Downer’s symbol of the post-Timor renewal process.  

6. The South Pacific: Downer said he spent up to 25 per cent of his time as Foreign Minister on the South Pacific. Perhaps this was the quarter of his life that was most frustrating. The South Pacific is where Australia suffers the temptations and obligations of the regional superpower. The impression of failure can be deeper because the sense of possible influence is greater.

The South Pacific was the scene for significant Australian (and New Zealand) accomplishments: the Bougainville peace agreement, saving Solomon Islands from state implosion in 2003, saving people in Papua New Guinea’s remote areas from drought in 1997. Good policy can also be the handmaiden of tough self-interest. Australia saved Nauru from economic implosion, but the aid was in service of the Pacific Solution, which established boat-people processing camps on Nauru.

After the Solomons intervention, Australian Pacific policy took on a security-led tone. The role of the AFP in going after the corrupt 'big fish' in the Solomons infected Australia’s dealings with Papua New Guinea. Michael Somare had no intention of giving Australia’s police authority to go after corruption in his own ranks. By the end, Australia’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister could barely speak to the long-serving Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. The Moti affair became the final emblem of Downer’s emotions about the South Pacific – deep involvement linked to profound disappointment.

7. Downer's impact on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Downer earned the respect of DFAT. But he never rewarded the Department with cash. DFAT is the one international or security department in Canberra that was not showered with money and more people after the new terrorist era dawned. Liberal Senator Russell Trood’s Lowy paper sets out the argument that DFAT has been unfairly starved.

Some Ministers drown under paper. Downer stayed on top of the daily deluge. Such mechanical skills do matter in any Ministers relations with a department.

Most of the policy staffers in Downer’s office were from DFAT or AusAid. All his Chiefs of Staff, bar one, were drawn from DFAT ranks. This meant that an us-against-them culture didn’t develop between Downer’s Ministerial office in Parliament House and the Department. Downer stayed so long as Foreign Minister he came to know the history and problems of many issues better that the revolving corps of officials who came to brief him.

The Australian Wheat Board’s secret cash river to Iraq, in breach of UN sanctions, represents the most public failure of the Department and Ministerial oversight.

Individual diplomats did well. By the end of the Howard-Downer era, DFAT alumni were in charge of the Defence Department, ASIS, ONA and ASIO. The career track for such appointments was clear: move from a senior DFAT position to advise the Prime Minister on foreign policy and go from there to run an agency.