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South Australia

Jan 17, 2013

'Anyone but Isobel': Downer's comeback might have legs

Could Alexander Downer rescue the SA Liberal Party and defeat Labor at the 2014 election? The odds are firming -- but he would have to either do a Newman, or enter Parliament first. InDaily's Kevin Naughton investigates.


The return of former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer to the political stage is closer as more South Australian Liberal Party MPs warm to the idea.

A poor Newspoll result at the end of December has weakened the position of Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond who, this week, has been at the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne while Labor has been under pressure over a ministerial reshuffle.

Talk of a leadership deal between Downer and Redmond surfaced last October when Redmond revealed the option had been raised with her. Dissatisfaction with Redmond’s leadership then resulted in a failed leadership challenge by former leader Martin Hamilton-Smith on October 23.

The challenge failed by just one vote, after several undecided MPs were told that the Downer option was a more viable one and would occur in early 2013. “Since the failure of key MPs to get on board the Hamilton-Smith challenge, we have been left with the same problem as before and that is the general belief that Isobel can’t win a general election,” a senior party official told InDaily at the time.

That view has since been reinforced with a Newspoll published in The Australian at the end of December showing Redmond’s approval rating at its lowest since the 2010 state election. The SA election is set for March 2014. The poll placed Labor back in a winning position, despite a disastrous period where BHP axed its Olympic Dam expansion and the state budget heaved under pressure from falling revenue and rising debt.

Liberal MPs were disappointed yesterday when it emerged that while Labor Premier Jay Weatherill was embroiled in a factional stoush over his coming cabinet reshuffle, Redmond was enjoying the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne. “It seems like every time she should be taking advantage of Labor’s problems, she disappears,” one senior MP said.

Redmond was in Melbourne for the first three days of the tennis and returned to Adelaide last night. Neither she, nor her office, returned calls this morning.

The Downer push started at federal level where concerns had been raised about the lack of Liberal Party traction in South Australia.

“Abbott’s people and Christopher Pyne’s group are concerned that in a state where Labor is in its fourth term, the local Libs seem to have trouble making a mark on the Labor brand,” a Liberal source said. “Given the events of the last 12 months in SA, Labor should be in deep trouble. With some winnable federal seats on offer, the Liberal Party can’t afford to let the state machine roll along as it has been.”

In another twist this month, it emerged in party circles that key Redmond supporters have come aboard the Downer push. “They are actively seeking assurances that they will retain senior roles in the parliamentary party,” a source said. “It has now become a case of ‘anyone but Isobel’ and Downer is the preferred option.”

“It will require the agreement of Isobel, but that won’t be too difficult. If he makes the call, the rest will fall behind.”

Those close to the Downer bid say he has been watching political developments before making a final decision.

“They knew that the ALP had to have a major cabinet reshuffle off the back of two senior retirements and that Premier Weatherill has to outline his vision for the state in this final parliamentary year before the election,” said one source. “The first part of that equation has happened and so far Weatherill’s made a mess of it. Once he’s laid his ‘vision thing’ on the table, then Downer can roll over the top of it and set out a path for South Australia’s transformation.”

Keen observers have also noted the changed tenor of Downer’s regular columns in local News Limited publication The Advertiser. A regular commentator on national and international issues, he recently turned his thoughts to the state’s finances and local tourism policies.

Downer served in the foreign affairs role for 11 years, and shortly after his retirement from federal parliament in 2007 he was appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as Special Adviser on Cyprus. That role expires in February. He would have to step away from other key roles. Late last year the Federal Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, appointed Downer to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Council for a three-year term.

He also holds key business posts, most recently taking up an alternate directorship with Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill Holdings in Western Australia. Documents lodged with ASIC show that Downer was appointed on November 15 as an alternate director for one of Rinehart’s top lieutenants, Tad Watroba. He also sits on an Australian advisory board for Chinese communications group Huawei.

One key supporter of the Downer move — a party powerbroker — told InDaily the experience and gravitas Downer would bring to the position would be of “great benefit to South Australia”.

“He has a view of how SA sits in the national perspective. He would have the best credentials in that respect since Don Dunstan; even more than Dunstan. He would also defuse the tensions between the Right and Left factions. And whenever he called a press conference you can bet that every media outlet would turn up,” they said. Another party official said Downer would provide a great attraction for potential corporate donors.

The Downer option has another conundrum: does he do it from inside or outside the parliament? Preselection for the Barossa Valley seat of Schubert — the one most commonly linked to Downer — has been left open until March. Sitting member Ivan Venning said today he wasn’t keen on stepping down a year ahead of the 2014 election.

Preselection for the seat of Fisher — adjacent to Downer’s old federal electorate of Mayo — has also been delayed. Incumbent Fisher MP Bob Such confirmed yesterday that he had held talks with state Liberal Party officials. The 68-year-old former Liberal-turned-independent is contemplating retirement and said yesterday he was finding it difficult to get motivated for a return to parliamentary sittings this year.

The third option of Downer taking over Redmond’s Adelaide Hills seat of Heysen appears unlikely, given her parliamentary pension entitlements don’t kick in until a year into the next term of parliament.

Downer has maintained a consistent line on the leadership bid, while never ruling it out. “It will require the agreement of Isobel, but that won’t be too difficult,” a senior party power broker said. “If he makes the call, the rest will fall behind.”

*This article was originally published at InDaily



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27 thoughts on “‘Anyone but Isobel’: Downer’s comeback might have legs

  1. cairns50

    crikey must be desperate for news to make alexander downer a lead story and for it to be publishing articles by kevin naughton who was previously an advisor for the Country Liberal Party when i was in govt in the NT in the 90’s

  2. Mike Flanagan

    At least he is back from Cyprus where he caused confusion among the current crop of international leaders who had accepted Australian’s reputation for a constructive conribution to geo political arena as a given.
    At least, as Opposition leader in state parliament, we are at last minimalising his impact on the nation’s agenda and his influence on our neighbours appreciation of us.
    Mick the SA shearer cum politician aptly decribed him as ‘the bastard son of the Adelaide aristocracy’ and it still is very pertinent and relevant today.
    I think the SA population have moved on from the days of Adelaide Aristocracy leading them to economic and social stagnation.

  3. tonyfunnywalker

    The Liberals in SA are a mess and have been for some time. The Pyne faction is largely responsible for destabilising the Party. Parachuting Downer into the leadership will more than likely cause defections to the cross benches thus causing even greater instability than current. Downer is not a dead set winner either as he nearly lost Mayo in a close run with a local independant a couple of elections ago.
    There was no mention of Marshall – he is the heir apparent. I agree with cairns 50; to lead with a Kevin Naughton piece is not up to crikey standards for balanced analysis. I do not read thenIndaily either as it has little influence.

  4. paddy

    I suspect cartoonists across this wide brown land are praying for (and drooling over) the prospect of Lord Downer’s return.
    Everybody else will be scratching their heads, wondering WTF?

  5. TheFamousEccles

    Funny headline, IMO.

  6. Bam Stroker

    “Abbott’s people and Christopher Pyne’s group are concerned that in a state where Labor is in its fourth term, the local Libs seem to have trouble making a mark on the Labor brand,” a Liberal source said.

    ^ Third. Labor is in it’s third term.

  7. zut alors

    Paddy beat me to it, cartoonists would be thrilled at this prospect. With Queensland having so many clowns at state level, Downer would help redress the national imbalance.

    Fingers crossed.

  8. klewso

    Have they got wheat and “Learn to Swim” classes (for “migrants”) in SA?

  9. Mike Flanagan

    I thank Mother Superior of the Order of Moderators for posting my above post. But to take from 2.00pm yesterday to after 8.00am today is stretching the friendship.
    I can understand that many of my posts must stretch the envelope and require careful consideration by Mother Superior in the quiet of her cloisters but her record of over 48 hours contemplation and holy book referral does need to be looked at.
    Without wishing to provoke a challenge, I am hysterically proud of not having one post totally rejected over the past eighteen months but the timing it takes to review could be abbreviated.

  10. drmick

    The things that batter and red high heels with fishnet stockings could be the new black; sorry, ebony. He was really a misunderstood hipster and not just a d*ickhe@d after all?

  11. K.D. Afford

    Alexander Downer has proven himself a statesman ( something Bob Such alluded to as lacking in state politics) in Federal politics. Were he to rise to the occasion and become state leader, which should not be difficult, we could become the first state in Australia to have nuclear power. He once mooted it and such a power plant at Whyalla, as he said as I remember , and that, ”…if cheap cut price nuclear power was offered half of Sydney would be there tomorrow!”
    It is time the Liberals, State and Federal got out of the swill they are in and cleared the mud out of their eyes and looked for a new Leaders.
    Certainly Tony Abbott and his crew offer nothing.
    Locally the Labor Party sold us out to developers, but perhaps under Alexander we could become the new Rome.

  12. Mike Flanagan

    So very true drmick.
    But my innocuous claim to fame is built without the necessity for an asterisk.

  13. Mike Smith

    It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right.

    Kind of apt, really.

  14. zut alors

    Drmick, I reckon Firsty is rubbing his paws together in anticipation. Or chasing his tail with excitement.

  15. klewso

    “Statesman”? More like the “Plymouth Prowler”?

  16. Albert Ross

    “the experience and gravitas Downer would bring to the position” – heh

  17. drmick

    Zut; I can see his tail wagging now.

  18. CML

    As a South Australian, I am horrified by this news. But then to say that Lord Downer will be “better” than Don Dunstan as premier? Out-blo+dy-rageous!!!

  19. tonyfunnywalker

    Same story in the OZ different bi-line.

    I seem to recall Downer as a disaster as Shadow Federal Liberal Leader, upset the Aboriginals somewhat.

    As Foreign Minister he learned to love the world stage – so SA would probably be beneath him. (and he would take a salary cut) and I am sure ge would perfer to work with Gina – they have the same approach to economics and politics.

    Isuspect this all a beat up to again punish Redmond- How dare she go to the Tennis – at least on this occasion I hope it is.

    Kevin Naughton was chief at the Advertiser – an Akerman clone.

    Another reason not to read InDaily as the journalists are News castoffs.

    Crikey, you have been had as the ABC were had over the AWU beatup.

    Downer is not a favourite son in SA as is suggested by my fellow bloggers and an opinion poll would kill this beatup dead.

    Bringing back Downer would rival bringing back John Olsen -who is still trashing SA assets – well the Adelaide Oval at least to add to the fire sale of ETSA.

  20. AR

    Surely Lord Bunter the Downer could be SA Lib’s LotO without silly little restraints like, you know, winning a seat? Cantdo Newtman showed BananaBenders how to do it, so SA has a template.

  21. David CrikeyB

    Have to tell my favourite Downer story.
    A number of years ago when he was still in Fed government, I was waiting at the gate for my flight to Adelaide to be called. Up strides Lord Downer with 2 or 3 minders. After a 3-4 minute wait, they call for boarding (for Business Class and Gold members etc). The minders go to board, then notice Lord Downer is no longer with them, one turns to the other and says “Where the f.. has he gone to now ?”. They run round in a tiz until they find him browsing in the newsagent, oblivious to boarding call. Reminded me so much of travelling with small children

  22. green-orange

    Downer was foreign minister at the time that bribes were being paid to Saddam Hussein. He’s a disgrace that should never be allowed anywhere near parliament.

    This is all about a factional dispute ; Martin Smith (changed his name by deed poll) wants to move the party further to the right (as is SA Labor isn’t right wing enough already).

  23. Rais

    Alexander has a pretty good claim to be the worst foreign minister we’ve ever had, though the present incumbent is working on it. From bad ex foreign minister to state party leader in one state while we have from ex party leader to not very wonderful foreign minister in another state? Who said Oz politics couldn’t be funny?

  24. fredex

    You are trashing your brand when you publish stuff [being diplomatic] like this article.

  25. Venise Alstergren

    PADDY: WTF indeed. The man is nothing more than a failed John Howard lickspittle, (sic) and a walking-I think-joke.

    The only thing I can think of is it shows how desperately short of talent the Liberals are. Have they no intellectual abilities to choose from? It’s what comes from allowing a failed crim to lead the party. Is Downer another Catholic? Probably not.

    Perhaps 2013 is the year they chuck in the towel and elect Chrissy Wissy Pyne to lead them?????

  26. Venise Alstergren

    PPS PADDY: I shouldn’t even make a joke of/with the last paragraph. Please forgive me.


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