Alexander Downer

This article is about the former Australian Opposition Leader. For his father, also an Australian politician, see Alick Downer.
His Excellency The Honourable
Alexander Downer
Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Assumed office
27 June 2014
Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Malcolm Turnbull
Preceded by Mike Rann
Minister for Foreign Affairs
In office
11 March 1996  3 December 2007
Prime Minister John Howard
Preceded by Gareth Evans
Succeeded by Stephen Smith
Leader of the Opposition
In office
23 May 1994  30 January 1995
Prime Minister Paul Keating
Deputy Peter Costello
Preceded by John Hewson
Succeeded by John Howard
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
23 May 1994  30 January 1995
Deputy Peter Costello
Preceded by John Hewson
Succeeded by John Howard
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Mayo
In office
1 December 1984  14 July 2008
Preceded by New seat
Succeeded by Jamie Briggs
Personal details
Born Alexander John Gosse Downer
(1951-09-09) 9 September 1951
Adelaide, South Australia
Political party Liberal Party of Australia
Spouse(s) Nicola Downer AM (née Robinson)
Children 4
Parents Alick Downer and Mary Downer (née Gosse)
Alma mater Newcastle University
Profession Economist
Religion Anglicanism[1]

Alexander John Gosse Downer, AC (born 9 September 1951) is a former Australian Liberal Party politician who was Foreign Minister of Australia from 11 March 1996 to 3 December 2007, the longest-serving in Australian history. He was also the Leader of the Opposition for eight months from 1994 to 1995. Until early February 2014, Downer was the United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Cyprus. In June 2014, Downer was appointed Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Early history and career

Downer was born in Adelaide, South Australia, into one of the state's prominent established political families. His father, Sir Alick Downer, also reached cabinet rank in federal politics, and was then High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1972. His grandfather, Sir John Downer, was twice Premier of South Australia and a Senator in the first federal Parliament in 1901. His mother, Mary, Lady Downer (née Mary Gosse), was descended from early immigrants to South Australia. Downer is related via the Gosse family to Sir Edmund Gosse, a famed English literary critic.[2]

Downer was educated at Geelong Grammar School in Australia, then in England (while his father was High Commissioner) at Radley College between 1964 and 1970,[3] and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. From 1975 to 1976, he worked as an economist for the Bank of New South Wales,[4] before entering the Australian Diplomatic Service, where he served until 1982.[4] Some of Downer's time in the Diplomatic Service was spent at a posting in Brussels, where he undertook a French language training course. He then worked as an adviser to the then Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser and subsequent Leader of the Federal Opposition Andrew Peacock.[4] From 1983 to 1984, he also served as the Executive Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce.[4] In 1984, he was elected to the federal Parliament as Liberal member for Mayo, in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. He held this seat until his resignation from Parliament in 2008.

Opposition Leader

Downer held a number of positions on the Opposition front bench from 1987 onwards. When the Liberals unexpectedly lost the 1993 election to Prime Minister Paul Keating, after the election Downer became Shadow Treasurer replacing Peter Reith who had resigned from the portfolio.[5] During this time Downer began to be talked of as a possible leader, and in May 1994 he succeeded John Hewson as leader of the Liberal party after defeating him in a leadership ballot. (Hewson intended to resign if the Coalition lost the 1993 election, but continued on regardless.)

As Liberal leader, Downer initially attracted record levels of public support, even when incumbent Prime Minister Paul Keating launched a series of attacks on Downer's privileged background. Then aged forty three, he was perceived as a fresh-faced alternative to a government in its 12th year of power.

Several months after becoming leader Downer's support base was quickly eroded, however, by a series of embarrassing public blunders. One was the emergence of a 1987 speech to the far-right Australian League of Rights.[6] Another was the sacking of John Hewson from the shadow ministry in August 1994.[7] Yet another was the public concern that Downer's wife was not even an Australian citizen. During 1994 Downer expressed interest in repealing the Mabo Legislation if elected at the next federal election due to be arranged by 1996.[8] A major incident that damaged Downer's leadership was a scandal which happened at a formal dinner. While promoting the Liberal slogan "The Things That Matter", Downer joked that the party's domestic violence policy would accordingly be named "The Things That Batter", referring to abusive husbands. Downer also found it difficult to handle the gulf between monarchists and republicans in his own party. By the end of 1994, his approval ratings had dwindled to 34 percent after being as high as 53 percent.

On 9 January 1995, internal Liberal Party polling showed that with Downer as leader, the Coalition had a slim chance of holding its marginal seats in the next election, let alone of winning government. On 11 January, Downer launched a major policy statement with ten policy commitments and criticised Liberals he saw as undermining his leadership. Downer negotiated in mid-January with now back-bencher Hewson, but this resulted in Hewson publicly declaring he wanted the shadow Treasury portfolio, which was held by Downer's deputy, Peter Costello. On 26 January 1995 he resigned as Liberal Leader and John Howard was elected unopposed to replace him. Downer pledged his support to Howard and said he would "kneecap" anyone who undermined Howard's second attempt at winning the prime ministership.[9]

With a tenure of just over eight months, Downer is to date the shortest-serving leader of the federal Liberal Party. He is also, alongside Brendan Nelson, one of two federal Liberal leaders never to lead the party into an election. On opposition leadership, he said in 2008 that: "The moment when I wanted to [leave] was just about the first day I started in the job. There was many a time from the first day onwards when I thought to myself, How the hell can I get out of this?"[10]

However, in his first interview on Meet The Press after his appointment as Foreign Minister he stated that he still wanted to become Prime Minister.

Minister for Foreign Affairs

Alexander Downer (second from right) in 1998 during a joint press conference at the conclusion of the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations
Downer with former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer at Parliament House, Canberra, February 2005
Downer with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006.

Downer was given the choice of cabinet position[11] in the incoming Howard government elected in March 1996, choosing Minister for Foreign Affairs, a position he held until 3 December 2007. He became the longest-serving Foreign Minister of Australia on 20 December 2004.

One of Downer's earliest initiatives as Foreign Minister was to work with New Zealand to broker a peace agreement in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, which ended a long running civil conflict.

In 1996 Downer took the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the United Nations General Assembly where it was embraced by most members of the world body. Pakistan, India and North Korea were among those who failed to ratify the treaty and went ahead in developing nuclear weapons capability. In 1999, the U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the treaty. Downer stated

It's pretty hard to say on the one hand that we feel very strongly about Pakistani and Indian nuclear testing and on the other hand the U.S. Senate won't ratify the ...treaty... The last thing the United States wants to see is a resumption of nuclear testing or the proliferation of nuclear weapons – and it is the last thing Australia wants to see. By refusing to ratify this treaty, the United States Senate has done a lot to undermine the arms control agenda that the international community, including Australia, has been working on.[12]

However, subsequent policies of the Howard government, including export of uranium to India, and general support for the unilateralist approach of the Bush Administration have been seen as undermining the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.[13] In 1999, Downer played a key role in assisting the United Nations to hold a referendum in East Timor and in negotiating the entry of the INTERFET peace keeping force into East Timor.[14] This intervention has been attributed by Osama Bin Laden as provoking a fatwā on Australia and Australian interests.[15][16][17][18]

In 2003, Downer signed an agreement over the gas and oil reserves in the Timor Gap.[19] An agreement which has been criticised by some opposition parties and other critics, including a bipartisan letter of reproach from 50 members of the United States Congress, as being unfair to East Timor[20][21][22][23] as the gas reserves are closer to East Timor than Australia but are claimed by Australia on the basis of a treaty with General Suharto, in 1989.[24]

As Minister for Foreign Affairs, Downer played a role in the diplomatic dispute known as the Tampa affair in 2001 in which Australia denied permission for the MV Tampa to dock at Christmas Island, having picked up a number of asylum seekers trying to get to Australia by boat. Downer also played a role in the subsequent negotiation of the "Pacific Solution" in which Australia held asylum seekers off-shore in foreign jurisdictions.

In 2003 Downer was accused of not passing on intelligence reports he received before the 2002 Bali bombings. He countered that the warnings were not specific enough to warrant their further release to the Australian public.[25]

Downer supported Australia's participation in the Iraq war. He argued that Iraq, the Middle East and the world would be better off without the regime of Saddam Hussein and he defended the claim that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq.[26][27][28]

In August 2004 he made a provocative claim that North Korea could launch Taepo Dong ballistic missile with a range long enough to hit Sydney, a view disputed by experts.[29]

In 2005 Australian members of the spiritual group Falun Gong launched action against Downer in the ACT Supreme Court alleging that his department had unfairly limited their freedom of expression.[30][31]

Downer was accused by Chen Yonglin, a defected Chinese diplomat, of closely collaborating with the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, even "giving suggestions to the Chinese Government on how to handle difficult political cases."[32]

In August 2006, it was claimed by a former weapons inspector Dr John Gee, that Downer had in 2004 suppressed accurate and provable information that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was fundamentally flawed.[33][34][35]

In March 2006 he said the Australian Government opposed selling uranium to India. Downer is quoted as saying "Australia had no plans to change a policy which rules out uranium sales to countries like India which have not signed the UN's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)." Following the conclusion of the US-India nuclear agreement, the Australian Government said it would export uranium to civil nuclear facilities in India subject to several conditions one of which was the conclusion of a bilateral safeguards agreement.

In April 2006 he appeared before the Cole Inquiry regarding the oil for food scandal and testified that he was ignorant of the huge kickbacks paid to the Iraq government, despite claims by the Opposition Labor Party that many warnings that had been received by his department from various sources.

In July 2006 it was claimed that six months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Downer had argued that participating in the invasion would be commercially beneficial for Australia. Downer expressed concern that the war might lead to America taking all of Australia's wheat market.[36]

As Foreign Minister, Downer supported the United States Government's incarceration of two Australian citizens, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.[37] Habib was eventually released without charge. Following a plea bargain, Hicks was sentenced in 2007, by the military commission, for providing material support for terrorism, and was returned to Australia to serve the remaining nine months of his sentence, which expired in December 2007. As of May 2008, Hicks is the only one of the 517 foreign terror suspects held at Guantanamo to be convicted.[38]

A major challenge for Downer was handling relations with Australia's most important neighbour, Indonesia. Downer negotiated the 2006 Lombok Treaty to put security relations between the two countries on a stable footing, built bilateral co-operation to fight terrorism, people smuggling and illegal fishing. One of the recent difficulties which erupted between Australia and Indonesia was when Australia accepted a boatload of asylum seekers from Indonesia's Papua province in March 2006.[39]

In September 2007, on the sidelines of the 2007 APEC Conference in Sydney, Downer indicated that Australia planned to launch bilateral ministerial-level security talks with the People's Republic of China. Downer also stated, "China is a good partner of Australia. Whatever the differences there are between us in terms of our political systems, human rights issues, China is a very important part of the strategic architecture, the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region and it's important we have good forums to discuss any issues of that kind with them."[40]

Post-parliamentary career

Following the Howard Government's defeat at the 2007 federal election, Downer declined to make a comeback to the leadership and to serve on the Opposition frontbench, amid widespread speculation that he would resign his seat and seek new employment. He informed colleagues in May 2008 that he was considering staying in politics with a view to becoming shadow treasurer under either Brendan Nelson or Malcolm Turnbull.,[41] but he subsequently resigned from Parliament on 14 July 2008.[42] His resignation triggered a by-election in the seat of Mayo.

On 3 July 2008, the University of Adelaide announced Downer's appointment as Visiting Professor of Politics and International Trade in the School of History and Politics, including contributions to teaching and research, and work with the University's Institute for International Trade.[43] He also holds a Professorship at Carnegie Mellon University.

At about the same time, he went into partnership with Ian Smith (a former Liberal Party advisor and husband of former Australian Democrats leader and Senator for South Australia Natasha Stott Despoja) and Nick Bolkus (a former Labor Senator for South Australia) in a boutique consultancy firm, Bespoke Approach.[44]

Also in 2008, Downer discussed the possibility of working as a United Nations envoy to Cyprus with the UN Secretary-General to help revive the peace process.[45] The appointment received the support of the Rudd government, via the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith,[46] and it took effect on 14 July 2008.[47] He resigned in February 2014 to take up the post of Australia's High Commissioner in London.

He has a number of board appointments, including the Advisory Board of British strategic intelligence and advisory firm Hakluyt & Company,[48] Merchant Bankers Cappello Capital Corp.,[49] the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra,[50] Huawei in Australia,[51] and the board of Lakes Oil.[52] Downer has said that Huawei should not be considered a potential national security risk.[53] Downer's comments are at odds with an October 2012 US congressional panel's findings that have deemed Huawei a security threat to the US and other nations.[54]

A longtime supporter of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Downer has played a leading role opposing moves to replace the Queen with a president.[55]

In January 2001, he was awarded the Centenary Medal.[56]

Downer was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in the 2013 Australia Day Honours. In the same year, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia.[57]

In 2015, he was recommended by British and Australian officials as a possible compromise candidate for Commonwealth Secretary-General.[58] However, at the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Baroness Patricia Scotland was elected to the post.[59]

Personal life

Alexander Downer is married to Nicky (née Nicola Rosemary Robinson), who is a leading identity in the arts community and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2005 for her service to the arts.[60] They have four children, Georgina, Olivia, Edward, and Henrietta.

Downer is an enthusiast of V8 car racing and holds a CAMS racing licence.[61][62]

In mid-2014, the Downers sold Brampton House in Mount George;[63] they intend to return to South Australia in 2017.[64]

See also


  1. "Gosse, Sir James Hay (1876–1952) Biographical Entry – Australian Dictionary of Biography Online". Australian National University. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  2. Mitchell, Alex (3 June 1994). "Radley pins its hopes on Master Downer". Sun Herald. John Fairfax Group Ltd. p. 30.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Staff writer (29 August 2006). "Alexander Downer". The Advertiser. News Limited. p. 44.
  4. "Biography for DOWNER, the Hon. Alexander John Gosse". Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  5. An Open Letter to Alexander Downer Archived 24 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine., Australian League of Rights
  6. Name: * (1994-08-31). "Loose cannons". Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  7. "Aboriginal leader discusses his reasons for describing the Government leadership as 'racist scum' over the native title 10-point plan". 1997-11-05. Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  8. Ward, Ian (December 1995). "Australian Political Chronicle: January–June 1995". Australian Journal of Politics and History. 41 (3).
  9. Fraser, David (3 July 2008). "A gladiator in the political arena: ABC 3/7/2008". Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  10. "Taking his leave: The Age 2/7/2008". Melbourne: Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  11. "Disarmament Diplomacy: – Aftermath Of US Senate CTBT Rejection". 1 August 2002. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  12. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 23 October 2007. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
  13. Staff writer (15 September 1999). "UN approves Timor force". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  14. Williams, Daryl (26 February 2003). "Address to 'International Studies' & 'Australian Foreign Policy' students". Archived from the original on 26 September 2007. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  15. Parkinson, Tony (14 November 2002). "'Bin Laden' voices new threat to Australia". The Age. Melbourne: Fairfax Media. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  16. "Program Transcript – Former CIA worker analyses bin Laden threat". Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2 August 2005. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  17. Johnston, Tim (11 May 2005). "East Timor Tightens Security After Terror Warning". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  18. "The World Today Archive – Greens & Democrats: East Timor robbed over gas deal". Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  19. "Program Transcript – Greens & Democrats: East Timor robbed over gas deal". The World Today – ABC Local Radio. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 6 March 2003. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  20. Oxfam Australia :: The future of East Timor Archived 11 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  21. "Save East Timor". Save East Timor. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  22. The Guardian Archived 1 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  23. Steele, Jonathan (14 October 2003). "Anger in East Timor as Australia plays tough over gas reserves". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 23 April 2010.
  24. "Program Transcript – Govt under fire in Bali intelligence row". 7:30 Report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 18 June 2003. Retrieved 30 August 2007.
  25. "Program Transcript – War critics call for WMD evidence". Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2 June 2003. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  26. "Program Transcript – Secrets and Lies". Four Corners. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 15 February 2005. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  27. Staff writer (26 January 2004). "Wait and see on Iraqi weapons: Downer". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 26 June 2004. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  28. "Downer launches own missile on eve of visit to North Korea – National". 14 August 2004. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  29. "The World Today – Falun Gong launches legal action against Downer". Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  30. Mike Steketee: The price is rights | The Australian
  31. "Chinese Defectors Reveal Chinese Strategy and Agents in Australia". Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  32. Wilkinson, Marian (31 August 2006). "Weapons cover-up revealed". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  33. Wilkinson, Marian (1 September 2006). "Weapons: Downer admits being told". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  34. Staff writer (1 September 2006). "Rudd accuses Downer of WMD report cover-up". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 8 December 2007. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  35. Baker, Richard (3 July 2006). "Australia's other war in Iraq". The Age. Melbourne: Fairfax Media. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  36. "Program Transcript – Downer backs Guantanamo military commissions". The 7.30 Report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2 August 2005. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  37. Melia, Michael (30 March 2007). "Australian Gitmo Detainee Gets 9 Months". Washington Post. Retrieved 31 March 2007.
  38. Staff writer (23 March 2006). "Papua refugees get Australia visa". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  39. "Australia, China to launch security talks next year | World | Reuters". 5 September 2007. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  40. "AdelaideNow... Turmoil over Downer front bench bid". 23 May 2008. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  41. "Downer quits politics, eyes UN role: The Age 3/7/2008". Melbourne: 3 July 2008. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  42. "Former Foreign Affairs Minister takes uni role". 2008-07-03. Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  43. "> Alexander Downer". Bespoke Approach. Archived from the original on 1 June 2009. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  44. "Rudd supports possible Downer move to UN". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 21 May 2008. Archived from the original on 24 May 2008. Retrieved 22 May 2008.
  45. AAP (2008). Smith backs Downer as UN envoy to Cyprus. Retrieved 2 June 2008.
  46. ABC News (2008). UN names Downer as Cyprus envoy. Retrieved 12 July 2008.
  47. Baker, Richard; McKenzie, Nick (14 October 2008). "Downer joins Eddington at 'spy' company". Melbourne: Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  48. "Private Placements of Equity Capital Private Public Companies PIPE Financing | Cappello Capital Corp". Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  49. "Adelaide Symphony Orchestra". Archived from the original on 25 January 2010. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  50. The Australian (2011). Huawei names John Brumby, Alexander Downer board members. Retrieved 16 August 2011.
  51. The Sydney Morning Herald (2013). Downer joins Lakes Oil as Rinehart board appointee. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
  52. Malcolm Maiden (2009-10-24). "Huawei a security risk by any gauge". Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  53. "Huawei and ZTE pose security threat, warns US panel". 2012-10-08. Retrieved 2013-07-16.
  54. Farr, Malcolm (23 February 2008). "Pressure for 2010 vote on republic | The Age". Herald Sun.
  55. "DOWNER, Alexander John – Centenary Medal". It's an Honour database. Australian Government. Retrieved 26 September 2012.
  56. "Honorary Doctorates". University of South Australia. 2013. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  57. "Alexander Downer touted as next secretary-general of the Commonwealth". The Guardian. 10 November 2015. Retrieved 24 November 2015.
  58. "Commonwealth elects first woman secretary general". Times of Malta. 27 November 2015. Retrieved 27 November 2015.
  59. "It's an Honour: AM". 26 January 2005. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  60. "Downer tops 250 kph in V8 joyride". The Age. 1 July 2005. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  61. "Alexander Downer gets the ride of his life". Phillip Island Auto Racing Club Ltd. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  62. Jonathan Chancelor, (20 January 2015), London-based Alexander Downer sells Adelaide Hills home, Property Observer Retrieved 13 Mar 2016
  63. Carolyn Boyd, (11 November 2015), ‘Retirement is death': Downsizer Alexander Downer contemplates life after London, Domain, retrieved 13 March 2016

External links

Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Mayo
Succeeded by
Jamie Briggs
Party political offices
Preceded by
John Hewson
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
Succeeded by
John Howard
Political offices
Preceded by
John Hewson
Leader of the Opposition of Australia
Succeeded by
John Howard
Preceded by
Gareth Evans
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Stephen Smith
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Mike Rann
Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
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