News & Current Affairs
03 April 2014
Alexander Downer: from fishnet stockings to foreign envoy
Alexander Downer: following in his father's footsteps
Australia's new high commissioner to London is a staunch conservative who gave unstinting support for US invasion of Iraq
During his time as Australia's longest-serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer was frequently portrayed by cartoonists as wearing fishnet stockings.
The caricature dates back to an incident that Australia's incoming high commissioner to the UK would probably prefer to forget.
In 1996 a fresh-faced and smiling Downer allowed himself to be photographed wearing a fishnet stocking on his right leg as he put on a leopard-skin stiletto. It was said to be part of a charity initiative. The cartoonists were not so charitable.
Undeterred, Downer would entrench himself as a mainstay of the conservative John Howard-led government, serving as its foreign minister from 1996 to 2007, a period that came to be dominated by terrorism and security issues.
Now he is heading to London, taking on the same high commissioner role occupied by his politician father, Sir Alexander Downer, from 1963 to 1972.
The younger Downer may not have a knighthood (although the prime minister, Tony Abbott, is restoring knights and dames) and the opposition has attacked the appointment as blatantly political, but others say the one-time Liberal party leader will fit in just fine.
He has a certain affinity with the United Kingdom and I think his clipped language will serve him well in London,
one of his former colleagues, Joe Hockey, said.
During Downer's tenure as foreign minister, Australia implemented a hardline crackdown on the arrival of asylum seekers by boat, and strongly backed the US after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Howard, who was in Washington at the time of the attacks, affirmed Australia's solidarity with the US. Australia joined the war in Afghanistan and later the invasion of Iraq.
In the days before the US-led intervention in Iraq in March 2003, Downer left little room for doubt about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. He told parliament he refused to be remembered as a foreign minister who turning his back on 'such evil'.
The question today is less whether Saddam is guilty of trying to hide his weapons of mass destruction, we know he is. Or why this matters to Australia, we know it does. The real question today is what we, the international community, are going to do about it,
Despite the ultimate inability to find the claimed weapons of mass destruction, Downer continued to defend the invasion on the grounds it had removed 'the world's most brutal dictator' and led to a 'big improvement on pre-2003 Iraq'.
But a former secretary of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Richard Woolcott, lambasted Downer and Howard as 'accomplices in probably the most catastrophic foreign policy decision the US has made'.
Woolcott's strident criticism of the Iraq invasion did not go unnoticed.
The reporter Peter Hartcher told of an encounter between Downer and Woolcott at Melbourne airport. Yelling above the heads of the other travellers, Downer called out to the back of Woolcott's head, 'Loser!' he told me later, Hartcher wrote.
Then I ducked down quickly in case he turned around and saw me. In recounting the story, Downer seemed to think it a very funny thing to do.
Downer accused Hartcher of stark and embarrassing anti-intellectual bigotry and, indicative of much public commentary in Australia, blatantly anti-conservative, fascinated with trivia and, when it comes to conservatives, rich with personal abuse.
East Timor spying
Downer, who took on a post-politics role as a United Nations special envoy to Cyprus, has cited the achievement of a free and independent East Timor as his greatest accomplishment as foreign minister.
But relations between East Timor and Australia have hit troubles amid a growing scandal over allegations the Timorese cabinet room was bugged by Australian spies in 2004 to gain a negotiating advantage in a key oil and gas treaty.
This came to a head earlier this year at the international court of justice in The Hague, with East Timor seeking the return of documents that Australia's domestic spy agency seized in December 2013 from a Canberra-based lawyer acting for the fledgling country. East Timor alleged that it had evidence of Australia's bugging activities, the subject of a separate arbitration proceeding.
In a recent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Downer rebuked the journalist when asked whether it was appropriate to bug confidential discussions of the other side during negotiations, saying he would not comment on intelligence issues.
You're trying to be, if I may say so, with the greatest of respect, and I wouldn't have said this when I was the foreign minister, you're trying to be a smartarse,
Downer has also caused a stir with his assessments of the media 'obsession' with a Gold Coast beauty therapy student, Schapelle Corby, who was arrested in 2004 entering Bali with more than 4 kilograms of cannabis in her boogie board bag. Despite her protestations that she had been framed, Corby was convicted in 2005 of the crime.
Rhetorically, the media may wish to uphold the highest standards of non-sexist neutrality but the brutal truth is obvious: Schapelle Corby is good-looking and the others rotting away in Kerobokan [prison] are not. Sexism is alive and well in the world of commercial television. Why bother with judges and juries, prosecutors and defence lawyers? Acquit the pretty and convict the ugly.
Downer wrote in a piece for the Spectator following her release on parole in February this year.
No fishnet stockings allowed, presumably.