|His Excellency The Honourable|
|Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom|
Assumed office |
27 June 2014
|Preceded by||Mike Rann|
|Minister for Foreign Affairs|
11 March 1996 – 3 December 2007
|Prime Minister||John Howard|
|Preceded by||Gareth Evans|
|Succeeded by||Stephen Smith|
|Leader of the Opposition|
23 May 1994 – 30 January 1995
|Prime Minister||Paul Keating|
|Preceded by||John Hewson|
|Succeeded by||John Howard|
|Leader of the Liberal Party|
23 May 1994 – 30 January 1995
|Preceded by||John Hewson|
|Succeeded by||John Howard|
|Member of the Australian Parliament|
1 December 1984 – 14 July 2008
|Preceded by||New seat|
|Succeeded by||Jamie Briggs|
Alexander John Gosse Downer|
9 September 1951
Adelaide, South Australia
|Political party||Liberal Party of Australia|
|Spouse(s)||Nicola Downer AM (née Robinson)|
|Parents||Alick Downer and Mary Downer (née Gosse)|
|Alma mater||Newcastle University|
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.
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, and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. From 1975 to 1976, he worked as an economist for the Bank of New South Wales, before entering the Australian Diplomatic Service, where he served until 1982. 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. From 1983 to 1984, he also served as the Executive Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce. 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.
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. 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. Another was the sacking of John Hewson from the shadow ministry in August 1994. 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. 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.
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?"
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
Downer was given the choice of cabinet position 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.
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.
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. 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. This intervention has been attributed by Osama Bin Laden as provoking a fatwā on Australia and Australian interests.
In 2003, Downer signed an agreement over the gas and oil reserves in the Timor Gap. 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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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."
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., but he subsequently resigned from Parliament on 14 July 2008. 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. 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.
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. The appointment received the support of the Rudd government, via the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, and it took effect on 14 July 2008. 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, Merchant Bankers Cappello Capital Corp., the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Huawei in Australia, and the board of Lakes Oil. Downer has said that Huawei should not be considered a potential national security risk. 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.
In January 2001, he was awarded the Centenary Medal.
In 2015, he was recommended by British and Australian officials as a possible compromise candidate for Commonwealth Secretary-General. However, at the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Baroness Patricia Scotland was elected to the post.
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. They have four children, Georgina, Olivia, Edward, and Henrietta.
In mid-2014, the Downers sold Brampton House in Mount George; they intend to return to South Australia in 2017.
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- The Alexander Downer Archival Collection at the University of South Australia Library
- Bespoke Approach website
- Search or browse Hansard for Alexander Downer at OpenAustralia.org
|Parliament of Australia|
|New division||Member for Mayo
| Succeeded by|
|Party political offices|
|Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
| Succeeded by|
|Leader of the Opposition of Australia
| Succeeded by|
|Minister for Foreign Affairs
| Succeeded by|
|Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom