Bidding farewell to our worst foreign minister

Wednesday, 2 July, 2008

Bernard Keane writes:

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So goodbye to Alexander Downer. If nothing else, these Coalition departures are great for marvelling at how young they all looked five minutes ago in the early 1990s. It would be comforting to think that the responsibilities of power aged them all terribly, but, alas, we have all aged along with them. We just don’t have the unforgiving evidence of a life in public to remind us.

That Downer was our worst foreign minister of recent decades goes without saying. Possibly he was our worst ever, but that’s a matter for foreign policy PhDs.

What’s more important is that he chucked in the job in the early part of this decade. From 2001 to 2007, Australia’s foreign policy was essentially outsourced to the United States – and not to the US State Department, where some good sense has remained under Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but to the White House.

Under Howard and Downer, we swapped an alliance and friendship based on shared culture and interests, within which there was room for disagreement and debate, for reflexive support for whatever issued from the mouth of George W. Bush or his operator, Dick Cheney. In doing so, Downer and Howard inflicted significant damage on Australians’ perception of our relationship with the US which, had Mark Latham fluked his way to an election victory in 2004, might have been made long-term. It is testimony to the strength of the US-Australia relationship that it looks to have survived the relationship between the Howard Government and Bush Administration reasonably intact.

In abandoning our foreign policy independence, Downer was guilty of two great evils, along with his Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues: leading Australia into an illegal, immoral attack on Iraq that has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis, if not more, and ruthlessly exploiting the – in historical terms – relatively minor threat of Islamic terrorism for crass political purposes.

Compared to those, other Downer f-ck-ups like our damaged relationship with PNG are fairly minor.

There were a lot of things about Downer not to like – but many of them he couldn’t do anything about. It wasn’t his fault that he looked and sounded like the British public school prig from Central Casting, and in some ways it was amusing that Australia was represented for so long by Boy Mulcaster. And the poor bastard never lived down the innocuous business with the Rocky Horror Show stockings.

But he was more like his predecessor Gareth Evans than either would wish to admit – long-serving foreign ministers, both with grotesquely over-inflated conceptions of their world influence, both somehow encapsulating the very worst of their parties and therefore, automatically, capable of inspiring loathing in opponents. But let’s be charitable – if nothing else can unite the divided citizens of Cyprus, maybe five minutes with Alex will do the trick.

In the end, AWB summed up Downer’s foreign ministership perfectly: the deliberate turning of a blind eye to the bribery by a National Party scam of a tyrant against whom Downer was at that very moment making the case for war, about whose toppling Downer would later boast – and against whose forces we would shortly send our troops. The wilful failure of accountability and the intellectual dishonesty of Downer’s response upon discovery – along with that of Howard and Mark Vaile – turned even the Howard Government cheerleaders at The Australian against him.

Having bagged the sh-t out of the guy, let’s end on a more positive note. Downer shared a birthdate with fellow South Australian Natasha Stott Despoja, and he hailed her in a corridor in Parliament House once a few years ago.

Do you know who else we share a birthday with?” he asked her.

John Gorton.”

He paused, then said, “we all made great leaders didn’t we…”

Peter Fray

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