It’s probably not possible to be “more royalist than the king” when the “king” is George W Bush. But with the president’s Iraq policy losing adherents every day, it’s noteworthy that one supporter seems determined to die in the last ditch with him: our very own Alexander Downer.

Witness his speech on Saturday to the Young Liberal national convention. It hadn’t made it to his website this morning, but yesterday’s Age has the story.

Downer described the Iraq war as a “crucial battle for civilisation”, and described Labor’s “cut-and-run policy” (yes, someone really does still call it that) as “madness”, “isolationism” and an expression of “self-loathing”.

In what The Age called “a highly ideological critique”, he accused Labor of wanting “to retreat to fortress Australia”, with policies that “would be inviting the violence ever closer to our own homes.”

In actual content, Downer is only reiterating points that John Howard has already made. But as usual, he goes far beyond them in tone. What from Howard sounds restrained and somehow tethered to reality, from Downer sounds hysterical and positively unhinged. It is hard to estimate the damage this man has done to Australia’s image in the world.

To fight this year’s election on a platform of “All the way with George W” would be suicidal. Howard, always the realist, knows that Iraq is electoral poison. But Downer still thinks of the war as a defining cause with which he can rally the loyalists.

In the US, Republicans are trying to extricate themselves from the president’s embrace and somehow convey their apologies for having supported his disastrous policy. One day, if the Liberal Party is to have a future, the same thing is going to have to happen here. Some Liberals might be flexible enough to pull it off, but not Downer.

The Young Liberals are supposed to represent the next generation of Liberal leaders. They can hardly be blamed for inviting their party’s long-serving foreign minister to speak to them, but they will certainly be culpable if they give any credence to what he said.

Peter Fray

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