Subject: Alexander Downer in retrospect
Uppers and…. 3 July 2008 (c) 2008 The Canberra Times
Among many treasures in the manuscript collection of the National Library is a delightful letter dated May 1975 from former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies to his one-time cabinet colleague Sir Alexander Downer. Sir Robert, long retired but still immensely influential within the Liberal Party, had had Sir Alexander and Lady Downer over to dinner and he wrote to offer some career advice to Sir Alexander's son, ''that admirable boy'' as he described him, who had just completed an economics and politics degree at the Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. ''I was, of course, particularly interested in knowing what your son's ideas were on politics,'' Menzies wrote. ''Before I ever thought of going into politics, I set out to establish myself at the Bar in Victoria. This, I thought, was important, because I would like always be able to speak my mind to my electors. It may not be what they like, but if it isn't, well that is bad luck, I will then go back to my practice at the Bar.
What I am getting at, my dear Alec, is that it is a good thing for a man to feel that he is not utterly dependent on the goodwill of the electors ... Let him feel that if the electors don't agree with him, he can go back to a known occupation, and do it in a known way. This, I think, is tremendously important.'' Menzies hoped that the young Alexander would not be ''by hereditary [sic], obliged to go into politics'', following his father, a former immigration minister and high commissioner to the United Kingdom, and his grandfather, Sir John Downer, who was twice premier of South Australia and a senator in the first Federal Parliament from 1901 to 1903. If Alexander did pursue political office, then Menzies urged that it only be after he had established ''some of his own background, a background to which he could retire, if necessary, with honour''.
Alexander Downer did join a profession of sorts. He became a diplomat, joining the department of foreign affairs in 1976 and serving a three-year positing in Brussels. But the lure of politics was irresistible. Returning to Australia in 1980, he headed the foreign affairs office in his home town of Adelaide and then joined the staff of prime minister Malcolm Fraser. After Fraser's 1982 election defeat he worked briefly for opposition leader Andrew Peacock before securing preselection to the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Mayo in the Adelaide Hills. Elected in 1984, Alexander Downer has experienced the highs and lows of political life. He rose through the parliamentary ranks to become shadow treasurer and then Liberal Party leader in 1994. In retrospect, Downer admits that both he and the Liberal party made a serious mistake as he then lacked the experience and gravitas for national leadership. A series of political gaffes saw prime minister Paul Keating apply the political blowtorch and Downer relinquished the Liberal leadership to John Howard after a mere eight months. Bruised and battered, Downer become the shadow minister for foreign affairs and scored some political hits in the dying days of the Keating government, notably on the government's limp response to French nuclear testing in 1995. Downer was appointed foreign minister after the 1996 election and would hold office continuously until November 2007, becoming along the way Australia's longest serving foreign minister, surpassing Richard Casey after whom Downer named the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade headquarters in Barton in 1996.
Ultimately, Downer's own place in history will rest on his service as foreign minister. He entered the portfolio with a keen sense of a Liberal tradition in foreign policy that was characterised by ''realism'' and a declared focus on ''the national interest''. Early in office, Downer sought to discard much of the intellectual legacy of his predecessor Gareth Evans, especially Labor's preoccupation with the United Nations and the development of global and regional institutions. Downer did not abandon all of Labor's internationalist agenda. He pressed hard for the completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations and unsuccessfully campaigned to win a term for Australia on the United Nations Security Council. First and foremost, however, Downer and prime minister Howard presented themselves as foreign policy traditionalists. They talked of ''rebuilding'' the ANZUS alliance. (The Americans were initially somewhat nonplussed by this, pointing out that relations with the previous Labor government had been excellent.) Downer's early performance as foreign minister was marred by a lack of attention to detail.
Notably, in June 1996 Downer was asked by shadow foreign minister Laurie Brereton whether any Asian countries had complained about the Howard government's axing of a foreign aid program, the Development Import Finance Facility. Downer loftily declared that there was no problem and wrongly asserted that no minister had raised the matter with him. The reaction was swift. Within a few days the Chinese Embassy in Canberra through an intermediary sent Brereton's office a copy of a letter from a Chinese minister to Downer expressing a vigorous protest against the program's cancellation. Over the following week, a series of further letters surfaced, revealing that senior ministers in Indonesia and the Philippines had also written to Downer complaining about the cancellation. Downer was subjected to the first censure debate of the Howard government. In a series of embarrassing explanations and clarifications, Downer claimed that he couldn't be expected to read every letter that passed through his office and that his memory was ''insufficient''. It was widely speculated that Howard would remove Downer from his post, but the prime minister was never going to sack the man who handed him the Liberal leadership and Downer survived. Late in 1996, Downer's participation in an Adelaide charity fund-raising event led to the enduring image of Australia's foreign minister slipping on a fishnet stocking and leopard print stiletto heel. Cartoonists had a field day and have continued to portray Downer in fishnets ever since. Then shadow foreign minister Brereton regretted that there was not a parliamentary opportunity to ask prime minister Howard whether he was ''relaxed and comfortable about the Foreign Minister's foray into cross dressing''. To his credit, Downer worked hard and grew in the job. Early diplomatic difficulties with China were smoothed over. Privately concerned about the diplomatic impact of Howard's flirtation with Pauline Hanson's xenophobic politics, Downer adroitly managed Australia's diplomatic relations in Asia and took a lead in the development of Australia's response to the East Asian financial meltdown of 1997.
However, Downer's performance in relation to Indonesia and East Timor was at best mixed and arguably characterised by considerable duplicity. Both Howard and Downer have put much effort into trying to re- write the history of East Timor's move to independence, but it is clear that the government's firm preference was for East Timor to remain as part of Indonesia. The domestic politics of the East Timor issue had become more difficult after Labor's Brereton defied his party's leadership and broke a 25-year bipartisan consensus to come out in support of East Timorese self-determination. Prime minister Howard's often quoted but misunderstood letter to president Habibie in late 1998 was actually designed to encourage Jakarta to manage a process of dialogue that would see East Timor remain as an Indonesian province. When, to the surprise of Australian diplomats, the mercurial Habibie rejected Howard's advice and declared that East Timor would proceed to a ballot on self-determination, Howard and Downer were left scrabbling to take credit for something they hadn't actually wanted. Downer was most anxious to manage Australia's increasingly fragile relations with Jakarta. He denied that the Indonesian military leadership was responsible for rapidly escalating violence in East Timor. He repeatedly said that only some ''rogue elements'' were involved, only to be directly contradicted by the leaking of a series of highly classified intelligence reports that pointed the finger at Indonesia's military chief General Wiranto. The Australian government argued against deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force in East Timor, telling the United States that the Indonesian military could be trusted to provide security for the ballot and that it would be counterproductive to press Jakarta to accept a foreign military presence.
Downer explained the policy: ''We hope that there won't be a need for a peacekeeping force because if you need a peacekeeping force, you need a peace to keep and peace first has to be negotiated and we hope that when the peace is negotiated it will be a peaceful peace that won't require a peacekeeping force.''
Against the odds, the East Timorese people voted for independence and the Indonesian military embarked on a huge and systematic campaign that left much of East Timor in ruins. In the end, it was the United States that prevailed on Jakarta to accept peacekeepers. An Australian military intervention was hastily improvised. A recent article by then deputy secretary of defence, ANU Professor Hugh White, paints a less than flattering picture of government decision-making at this time:
''This was not a task for which Australia had specifically prepared. No previous consideration had been given to the possibility that Australia might find itself the leader of, and principal contributor to, a force to restore security in the kind of circumstances we now faced ... The [National Security Committee of Cabinet] met daily during this period, often for quite long periods, often without a clearly set agenda and often leading to no very clear conclusions.''
Eventually, the decision to commit Australian troops was taken, but the success of the operation owed more to the professionalism of Australia's servicemen and women than the quality of strategic decision-making. Professor White's analysis concludes: ''Any assessment of Australian strategic decision making in 1999 has to start with this curious fact: the outcome that was hailed as a triumph in December differed in every respect from the Government's objectives at the start of the year. By the end of the year East Timor was on the path to independence, our relationship with Indonesia was severely strained, the Defence relationship with [the Indonesian military] had been largely dismantled, and substantial ADF forces were committed to East Timor ... more or less indefinitely.''
According to Professor White the Howard government's policy towards East Timor in 1999 was ''an operational success but a strategic failure''. The September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States again saw Downer managing a major diplomatic and military crisis. For both Howard and Downer, the ''war on terrorism'' provided an opportunity to carry through their objective of putting the US alliance at the centre of Australia's foreign relations. Australian forces were committed to Afghanistan and bilateral military ties with the United States were greatly expanded. Ultimately, however, commitment to the alliance led both Howard and Downer to support what would become an unpopular commitment to support US President George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq. It was not faulty intelligence about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction that led the government to commit Australian forces to Iraq, it was a simple and deeply felt view that wherever the US went, then Australia as a loyal ally must follow. Both Howard and Downer appear to have no regrets, but the Iraq intelligence controversy, coming after the 2001 children overboard affair, clearly eroded the government's political and moral authority. Then shadow foreign minister Kevin Rudd's pursuit of the Australian Wheat Board's involvement in the UN Oil for Food scandal also saw Downer falling back on the excuse that he couldn't be expected to read every cable or letter that came across his desk. Old hands in Foreign Affairs and Trade observed that ''It would never have happened in Gareth's day''.
And what now for Alexander Downer? Today, he formally pulls the plug after 24 years in Federal Parliament. He appears to be heeding some of Sir Robert Menzies' advice. He is returning to life as a professional diplomat, this time as the United Nations Special Envoy to Cyprus. This will certainly test his diplomatic skills, but it will only be a part-time job. Instead Downer will apparently also work for the new corporate advisory firm Bespoke Approach which began operating in Adelaide. In effect he will be a political lobbyist and adviser. Downer's partners will be Ian Smith, husband of former Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja, and former Labor senator and immigration minister Nick Bolkus. Smith's conservative politics credentials are impeccable. Downer's new relationship with Bolkus is more intriguing. Bolkus has in the past been a sharp critic of Downer, on one occasion accusing the former foreign minister of ''a litany of deceit'' in relation to the 1999 East Timor crisis. Downer once observed that '''Senator Bolkus is not one of the members of this Parliament who sets the highest of standards, and all members of this Parliament know that''. Bolkus is a lobbyist for various business groups and chairs the South Australian Labor Party's fund-raising arm, SA Progressive Business Inc. It remains to be seen whether a professional association with Bolkus, a life-long supporter of the Greek Cypriot cause, will complicate Downer's new diplomatic role. For Alexander Downer, though, it looks like retirement from Parliament will in some ways be business as usual politics and diplomacy. The more things change, the more they stay the same.