Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 21:48 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 21:48 | SYDNEY

The Downer legacy (part 1): Howard and Downer


Graeme Dobell

26 November 2008 14:58

Ed. note: Graeme Dobell previously wrote three introductory posts to this Downer Legacy series. This is the first of his in-depth analyses.

In the beginning, there was a moment when Alexander Downer’s term as Foreign Minister could have been as short as his leadership of the Liberal Party. Instead of serving as Foreign Minister for nearly a dozen years, he could have been gone from the office in less than six months.

In 1996, his first year as Foreign Minister, Downer stumbled into an Asian policy disaster that nearly ended his ministerial career. He asserted in parliament that no Asian minister had protested at the Government’s scrapping of a tied aid scheme, the Development Import Finance Facility (DIFF). The rush to contradict that statement produced a near-death experience for the new Minister. China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines all averred that they had most definitely lodged official protests at the cancellation of DIFF.

Howard sent Downer into Parliament to give a full accounting of the DIFF imbroglio. The parliamentary pistol had been cocked and Howard would have been entitled to pull the trigger if any further difficulties exploded. Howard, in his early years in power, made a messy habit of casting overboard Ministers (and senior minders) touched by scandal.

Now a Liberal Party parliamentary frontbencher, Greg Hunt was a senior staffer for Downer from 1994 to 1998. From that intimate perspective, Hunt’s interpretation is that Howard went as far as he could to help Downer survive the DIFF mess, to avoid the sanction supposedly served on Ministers for misleading parliament. Hunt sees DIFF as one of the moments of fire that forged the Downer-Howard relationship, saying that Howard’s backing in that first crisis 'secured Alexander’s uwavering support [for the Prime Minister] through many difficult times over the next decade…there was a total [Howard] desire to protect and save, that was how I interpreted it.'

DIFF and the AWB Iraq scandal were the two near-death experiences of Downer’s ministerial career. The difference, according to Hunt, is that Downer 'knew he’d done the wrong thing in DIFF, he didn’t feel he’d done the wrong thing in AWB.' Hunt said Howard supported Downer through the DIFF controversy, but for a while afterwards the Prime Minister 'kept a watching brief, for sure.'


Part of the difficulty of writing about Downer’s legacy is that the only proper way to think about the period is to discuss the Howard-Downer approach to foreign policy.

One of Downer’s achievements as Foreign Minister was how close he got to Howard. Ability to coordinate policy with the leader and capacity to steer submissions through Cabinet are two significant measures of a Foreign Minister. Never allowing more than an inch of light between Downer’s public position and Howard’s state of mind required a lot of work. Achieving that closeness involved Downer soft-peddling his own instincts on subjects as diverse as Pauline Hanson and allowing in guest workers from the South Pacific.

Downer presents his difference with Howard over Hansonism as merely an issue of tactics. Howard, he says, believed that ignoring Hanson would mean she would quickly go away as an issue. Downer says Howard 'should have denounced her views earlier.'

As often with Downer, his defence of Howard is to mount an attack on the Labor Party and the left-wing elements of the Australian media. The really shameful behaviour, he says, was that of Australia’s left wing, which transmitted the message to Asia that Howard and Hanson were synonymous. Downer says Hanson’s views 'raised eyebrows in Asia', presenting problems for Australian diplomacy in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, among elites in Indonesia, and in Hong Kong and Tawain. There was less impact, he says, in China and Japan.

Unable to persuade Howard to attack Hanson, Downer finally took the unusual step of mounting his own verbal assault, without the approval of the Prime Minister. Downer told the ABC’s The Howard Years:

I made a speech attacking Pauline Hanson pretty vehemently. And I think I’m right in saying this, in nearly 12 years as the Foreign Minister I think it’s pretty much the only time he’s rung me to chastise me. But he wasn’t too impressed with it because he said well you know it’s just going to leave me out there and people are going to say, 'Well you know, the media are going to say, well Downer’s doing the right thing, why doesn’t Howard?'.

Greg Hunt calls the response to Hanson the one big point of difference between Downer and Howard. He says Downer’s decision to make a strongly-worded denunciation of Hanson’s anti-Asian language was

...the only time there was a policy departure without a prior discussion and notification [with Howard]. And it was conscious, deliberate. By the news that evening, Tim Fischer, Amanda Vanstone and another Minister had all followed the lead, and there was a very robust call [from Howard] after the ABC [7pm] News. By next morning, however, the headline in the papers was, ‘Howard unleashes Ministers on Hanson’, which tells you something about pragmatism. That was the beginning of the end on the Hanson stuff. Alexander made the statement after having not been successful through the conventional one-on-one stuff [with Howard]. That was the only time in the eleven years that I can think of where he consciously took a different tack.

Downer achieved his partnership by ensuring no policy gaps with Howard. The attachment eventually formed a close personal bond, which saw Downer serve as Howard’s trusted go-between in the final disastrous Cabinet machinations over Howard’s leadership. Ultimately Cabinet would not plunge the sword into Howard. As Downer explained, it would have been 'more like executing your father than sacking your boss.' The father figure reference explains a factor which is both a strength and a weakness of the Downer foreign ministership. The close partnership meant that he was a true and faithful servant of Howard foreign policy.

Greg Hunt says Downer worked at having a constant conversation with Howard:

Nobody talked with Howard more at ministerial level over the life of the government than Alexander. Often, during a parliamentary week, the PM would invite Alexander down to talk: not just foreign affairs, any area of the government. If there was an area that Alexander thought the PM was missing an opportunity or off-line, he’d see him. If the PM needed counsel, it would be more likely than not that he’d call Alexander. They had dinner together, they exchanged ideas, and they’d speak on the phone in non-parliamentary weeks probably every second day, and in many periods ever day.

Downer once told me how a submission had been approved by Cabinet: 'The Prime Minister and I voted for it, the rest of Cabinet were against. That means it was approved with a clear majority.' The Downer jest reflects the reality of Howard’s cabinet dominance. The Prime Minister’s nod became the Cabinet consensus. And sometimes that happened even without Cabinet being consulted.

Howard’s letter to Indonesian President BJ Habibie, calling for a radical change in Indonesia’s approach to East Timor, illustrates how Howard and Downer could take Cabinet for granted, even on major issues of foreign policy. The letter urged Habibie to 'negotiate directly with the East Timorese and consider the option of an act of self-determination after a substantial period of autonomy.' The Howard Years shows that Howard and Downer understood the magnitude of the letter (even if they miscalculated the response from Habibie). Yet this fateful missive was sent without any reference to Cabinet: 

FRAN KELLY: In the summer of 1998 John Howard made a fateful decision. Working with his Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, he wrote a letter to President Habibie, setting out a change in Australia’s position towards East Timor.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, the reason we decided to launch this change of Australian policy was that we felt that increasingly the current arrangements were untenable.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It hijacked our relationship with our largest neighbour, Indonesia, and a good relationship between Australia and Indonesia is kind of handy in Australian diplomacy.

FRAN KELLY: The letter they wrote supported the idea of autonomy but went much further, suggesting a compromise political solution, where the East Timorese would have the chance to vote on independence within a decade.

JOHN HOWARD: I turned around to Alexander Downer and put my hand on his shoulder and said...

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Mate, this is big. This really is very big.

JOHN HOWARD: We both felt that it was a huge change in Australian policy.

HUGH WHITE, DEPUTY SECRETARY, DEFENCE 1995-2000: It was a significant policy step. Australia was moving from a position in which we had not supported any act of self-determination in East Timor to one in which we supported the idea of an act of self-determination a decade or more in the future.

FRAN KELLY: But John Howard’s biggest foreign policy initiative was divulged to only a select and privileged few.

TIM FISCHER, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER 1990 - 1999: Let me tell you something; the most important letter ever written during the Coalition Government’s period of office leading to the creation of East Timor never went to Cabinet.

CHRIS BARRIE, CHIEF OF DEFENCE FORCE 1998 – 2002: Yeah well, we heard that the letter had been sent, I think we were a bit amazed.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: But I mean, oh look, with a lot of these foreign affairs things, I’ll be honest with you, I'll tell you something I wouldn’t necessarily have said when we were in Government. I mean, basically John Howard and I worked together... we didn’t necessarily draw everybody in; everyone else in at every stage of these kinds of decisions.

The Queensland Liberal senator and former Coalition Minister, George Brandis, judged that Howard was able to act with greater freedom from constraint than any Australian political leader since Menzies: 'Particularly after his stunning electoral victory in 2001, his authority became absolute: one never heard of Howard being rolled by cabinet, let alone by a largely obsequious party room.'

Brandis wrote in Liberals and Power – The Road Ahead that by almost any measure, Howard ranks with Robert Menzies and Alfred Deakin as one of Australia’s three most important non-Labor prime ministers. This ranking looks well founded (not least because Hughes and Lyons were both Labor before they became non-Labor!).

Downer became one of the closest servants of Howard’s dominance. The pragmatism of the two men was demonstrated by two dimensions of the relationship — the agreement by which Howard took the leadership from Downer in 1995; and Downer’s refusal to allow that shattering of his leadership ambition to infect his personality or his approach to Howard in office.

The Liberal leadership was a central dynamic of Howard’s vastly different dealings with the two senior ministers who held the same portfolios throughout the Howard era — Downer and Costello. Because the leadership issue had been settled between Downer and Howard, they could have a personal openness that the Prime Minister could never have with Costello.

The difficulty involved in Downer achieving this harmony with Howard should not be underestimated. Downer shares with Bill Hayden the experience of having to surrender the party leadership in Opposition and then being rewarded in government with the post of Foreign Minister. The relative calm between Downer and Howard can be compared to the lingering bitterness of Hayden’s testy dealings in government with his leadership successor, Bob Hawke. 

From his vantage point as senior adviser to Downer, Greg Hunt says Downer quickly made his peace with Howard for the good of the Liberal Party. He says Downer had been a Howard supporter in previous leadership ballots and the two were close personally and philosophically. Hunt says Downer showed the necessary resilience of good politician – not tearing himself apart over the leadership disaster and quickly moving on to deal with new challenges:

There was every temptation after he [Downer] lost the leadership to harbour resentment – a desire to get the job back, or a desire for revenge. People can judge what the cause of the leadership loss was, but the history of politics is the history of people who feel slighted and who then destabilise. And what I can categorically say is, right from the start, he [Downer] accepted his own responsibility for the loss of the leadership and wanted to prove himself. Despite the fact that Howard took over from him, there was always a genuine affection towards Howard and between the two.