As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000.

*This article was originally published on August 9, 2005.

Does an Australian foreign minister have a conflict of interest if a close member of his family is awarded a prestigious scholarship by a country which uses such scholarships to “contribute to the maintenance of a strong relationship between the countries”?

Should close family members of senior politicians exclude themselves from certain opportunities because of the public perception that could be created if they don’t?

Is an unfortunate perception created during a time of war when the daughter of the foreign minister receives a valuable benefit from one of Australia’s key allies in that war?

And how should 300 unsuccessful candidates for the same scholarship feel when they find out that one of the handful of successful candidates is the daughter of the Australian foreign minister?

These are some of the questions facing our foreign minister, Alexander Downer, in view of the fact that his 25-year-old daughter Georgina has won a prestigious Chevening postgraduate scholarship to study in the UK, worth around $50,000, awarded and funded by the British government.

Crikey isn’t suggesting any impropriety by either Downer or his daughter in her successful application for one of the Chevening scholarships, due to be announced in a few weeks’ time. Nor do we suggest any kind of direct interference by Downer.

But — in the interests of transparency and open government — we do ask these questions:

Could such an award create the unfortunate perception that one of the children of the minister responsible for Australia’s foreign relationships has benefited from a country with whom her father must maintain a close relationship?

Could this create the perception that the British government is rewarding a family member of a senior Australian government minister at a sensitive period during the war in Iraq in which both countries are allies in a small and extremely controversial coalition?

And does awarding this British government scholarship to Downer’s daughter sit comfortably with these provisions in the government’s own ministerial code of conduct issued by Prime Minister John Howard in 1998:

  • “Ministers should not accept any benefit where acceptance might give an appearance that they may be subject to improper influence (e.g. because the giver has or seeks to have a contractual relationship with government or has any other special interest in government decisions).”
  • “Particular attention needs to be paid to ensuring that the scope for adverse comment is minimised if it is proposed to appoint
    someone who is the close relative or associate of a minister.”
  • “The distinction between official and personal conduct is not always clear (e.g. in relation to the provision of
    hospitality/entertainment and use of car transport) but ministers should ensure that their actions are calculated to give the public value for its money and never abuse the privileges which, undoubtedly, are attached to ministerial office.”
  • “The nature of their duties is such that they may need to have regard to the interests of members of their immediate families (to the extent that ministers know their interests) as well as their own when ensuring that no conflict or apparent conflict between interests and duties arises.”

Crikey understands that Georgina Downer, who recently left her job in the Melbourne office of law firm Minter Ellison, is currently travelling in Europe before settling in London to study for her Chevening scholarship at the London School of Economics, starting next month.

According to the application forms, Chevening scholarships are available each year to a small number of Australians who have “obtained, or expected to obtain, at least an upper second class undergraduate degree” (in 2003, for example, seven out of eight Chevening scholars had first class honours degrees). Georgina Downer was awarded a third class honours degree from Melbourne University.

However, a spokesman for the British High Commission in Canberra has told Crikey that the Chevening selection panel considered interview performance as well as academic results, and was “unashamed” about awarding scholarships to people with the potential to improve ties between Australia and the UK and “contribute to the maintenance of a strong relationship between the countries.”

The Chevening scholarships, for a year’s study for a postgraduate qualification, are funded by the British Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office. The current federal finance minister Nick Minchin was a former scholar.

A spokesman for Downer, Chris Kenny, assured Crikey that the foreign minister had not “lobbied” the High Commissioner over his daughter’s application and that the minister “resents the suggestion that his daughter may not have won the scholarship had she not been the daughter of the foreign minister.” Through his spokesman Downer told Crikey: “Every time she has been successful in life she has had to put up with this accusation. She should be left alone to pursue her own successful career.”

Georgina Downer has not replied to our emails.

CRIKEY: Alexander Downer is right: his daughter should be left alone to pursue her own successful career. Except for one problem — she’s the daughter of the Australian foreign minister and she’s been awarded a highly prestigious benefit from the government of one of our close allies at a particularly sensitive time in the countries’ relationship.

There are three potential difficulties with Georgina Downer winning the Chevening scholarship: perception, perception and perception.

We’re not trying to suggest that Downer has exerted improper influence or lobbied to secure his daughter’s scholarship, nor do we believe he has deliberately set out to gain a benefit for himself or his daughter or has abused his position. But we do believe he has made a very bad political mistake that could create the perception that the daughter of the government minister responsible for Australia’s most important foreign relationships has benefited from one of those relationships.

In writing this story, we do feel badly for Georgina Downer. She’s not a politician and, as her father says, she should be left to live her own life and have her own privacy. She doesn’t deserve this attention.

But the harsh reality is that when someone decides to take on high political office they drag their families into their net. And in a democracy where proper and open conduct is critical, that’s exactly as it should be. Which means that sometimes, in the interests of optics and fairness, family members of powerful politicians must refrain from doing things they could do if they weren’t a close relative of a government minister.

In the words of John Howard’s own ministerial code of conduct: “The nature of their duties is such that they may need to have regard to the interests of members of their immediate families (to the extent that ministers know their interests) as well as their own when ensuring that no conflict or apparent conflict between interests and duties arises.”

Alexander Downer shouldn’t have done this to his daughter — or to Australia.

Peter Fray

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