Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 01:25 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 01:25 | SYDNEY

The Downer legacy: Politics, policy and comedy


Graeme Dobell

17 October 2008 14:41

This post concludes our introduction the Downer legacy blog seminar (here are parts one and two). Starting next week, I will post columns on each of the ten headings discussed in this introduction. But I want those columns to be informed by your views, so use these introductions to get you thinking and writing, via the EMAIL THE EDITOR button below.

8. Political warrior and foreign policy thinker: One measure of a Foreign Minister is his willingness to wage words, no matter how difficult the issue. In this area, Downer gets a high score. As a born politician, Downer knows that if you don’t define the issue, your opponents are happy to perform the service.

More than being ready to argue, Downer was happy to engage in a verbal stoush. Late at night at some international conference or tour, the smoke signal thrown off by the Foreign Minister’s cigar or pipe marked the spot where the best argument was happening. Downer even created a foreign policy advisory board so he could stage regular debates with learned outsiders (although sometimes this could be the scene for a Downer monologue).

As a theorist, Downer entered office proclaiming his attachment to 'enlightened Realism', contrasting this with the inconsistencies he saw in the Labor Party, which 'speaks of itself as being driven by Wilsonian idealism'. Serving John Howard meant Downer had to stay true to that Realist vision. DFAT produced two foreign policy white papers under Downer. Both are interesting documents – in places, excellent —  and both have Howard’s fingerprints all over them. The draft of the second white paper looked markedly different after it emerged from the Prime Minister’s office.

Judging by the speeches he gave and the documents he endorsed, Downer must rank as the Australian Foreign Minister who was most publicly sceptical about the value of the United Nations. Strange that his first post-politics job is as a special envoy for the UN in Cyprus. The UN may be one area where Downer no longer has to shadow Howard.

The bilateralist habit and the focus on the US alliance coloured approaches to Asia. It was Howard who produced the one sentence sound-grabs that defined the thinking. As so often with Howard’s pronouncements, the statements swung on negatives. Australia’s foreign policy, he said, would be 'Asia first, not Asia only.' And Australia 'did not have to chose between its history and its geography'.

9. The Downer sense of humour: If politics is show business for ugly people, Downer’s talent seemed to lean more to Jim Carrey farce than to Lord Olivier Shakespeare. Downer’s sense of humour played a role in his loss of the Liberal leadership in 1994-95. The low-point was his word play with his own major policy document – The Things That Matter. The joke was that in dealing with domestic violence issues, the title could be: 'The things that batter.' Goodbye, leadership. It was looking back to this period that produced the judgement that Downer could be 'too irresponsibly witty', a line coined by David Barnett, press secretary to Malcolm Fraser and biographer of John Howard.

In a scathing summation of the Downer career, Peter Hartcher offered an account of the Foreign Minister walking through an airport and seeing a former secretary of Foreign Affairs, Richard Woolcott, who served as an envoy of the government in its early days but became a severe critic over Iraq.

Now seizing the moment in Melbourne Airport, did the foreign minister confront Woolcott? Did he argue the merits of the policy? Did he try to change his mind? Or did he tell him what he thought of him? None of these. Yelling above the heads of the other travellers, Downer called out to the back of Woolcott's head, "Loser!" he told me later. "Then I ducked down quickly in case he turned around and saw me." In recounting the story, Downer seemed to think it a very funny thing to do.This was the man who, for nearly a dozen years, represented Australia in the high councils of the world. As this anecdote reveals, Downer can be petty and puerile. He plays a mean-spirited, personal, scratchy game of partisan politics. He can be breathtakingly immature.

The really funny thing about this anecdote is that Downer actually gave it to a journalist. The Downer response was to call Hartcher’s piece typical anti-intellectual bigotry and left-wing bias: 'The tragedy of much public commentary in Australia is that it is blatantly anti-conservative, fascinated with trivia and, when it comes to conservatives, rich with personal abuse.'

10. Ranking Alexander Downer: This blog seminar is about the Downer legacy, so where does he rate as an Australian Foreign Minister? Let’s confine the ranking to Liberal Party (conservative) Australian Foreign Ministers. Putting Labor Foreign Ministers in a separate box avoids a series of Liberal-Labor arguments about which side has best served the US alliance or embraced Asia. And it avoids the tussle – part philosophical, part temperamental and always intensely political – about the significance of the multilateral system and the UN. The ranking I offer puts Downer at equal second with Andrew Peacock.

  1. Spender
  2. Downer & Peacock
  3. Barwick
  4. Casey
  5. Hasluck, Freeth, Bowen, Bury & Street

      Worst: McMahon

Placing Downer second and sharing that spot with Peacock will be the point of obvious argument. And events still unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan will influence Downer’s standing. Please attack with all the arguments you can muster.

The case for Downer’s high ranking will be the balance he struck between the US alliance and China, the destruction then repair of the relationship with Indonesia over East Timor, the achievements of the terrorism response in Asia versus the agonies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the strength if not the success of actions in the South Pacific.

Downer’s standing rests on the extraordinarily strong partnership he created with his Prime Minister. Obviously it is the longest such partnership. And using the historical comparisons involved in this ranking process, it was the closest ever between a leader and Foreign Minister. Hawke and Evans comes closest. The difference is that Evans sometimes could get well ahead of his Prime Minister.

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’s view of the world. Downer once told me that a DFAT 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.' Here is the Downer character as Foreign Minister — the serious policy point delivered with an ironic touch.