Alexander Downer has long surpassed Gareth Evans as Australia’s longest serving foreign minister. And in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), long-serving officers tend to handle him with velvet gloves, remembering what has befallen colleagues who in the past aroused his ire:

  • John Campbell was ambassador to Chile when Downer arrived on an official visit in 1993. Because of an honest misunderstanding, the embassy’s official car was not at the
    airport to collect the minister, who had to take a taxi. Later during the visit, the car developed mechanical trouble. Not long afterward Campbell was recalled to Canberra and he subsequently took early retirement from DFAT.
  • When Jeff Kennett, as Victorian premier, visited Greece, the ambassador Dr Robert Merrilees arranged for him to meet the Greek president and prime minister – Kennett’s itinerary was arranged long before his visit and input from the Melbourne Greek community paved the premier’s way in Athens. Not long afterwards, Downer was accorded neither privilege – as it turned out the president was away and the prime minister’s diary was full. Merrilees was recalled and took early retirement.
  • Jeremy Herder, our high commissioner in Tanzania, had previously been first secretary at our embassy in Brussels when Downer was third secretary and on his first and only diplomatic appointment. Herder was obliged to make an assessment of his junior officer and came to the conclusion he was only of “fair average.” He returned to Canberra when Downer was minister and he was never given another appointment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey