Alexander Downer: politician, diplomat and petrol head

Alexander Downer. Photographer: Michael Robert Williams.

Privileged upbringing, politician, diplomat ... you may think you have Alexander Downer pegged. But add “petrol head” to the list and think again.

Alexander Downer candidly admits he wasn’t ready to be opposition leader when he defeated John Hewson in 1994. “I was just too inexperienced for the job,” he says with the ease of a man casting a mature eye over his career. 

After a rollercoaster ride of eight months, during which he faced a “fusillade of abuse”, Downer’s leadership was over. But while that door slammed shut, another opened – and this time he was better prepared. He was named foreign affairs minister, drawing on his time as a diplomat before he entered politics.

He joined prime minister John Howard and treasurer Peter Costello, and the trio presided over a strong and stable period of Australian government. 

Politics and diplomacy are in the Downer DNA – his grandfather was twice premier of South Australia and his father was a federal member of parliament before becoming Australia’s high commissioner to the UK, the role Downer now holds.

Serving close to 12 record years as foreign minister, Downer is credited with improving and securing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, helping the United Nations deliver independence to East Timor and contributing to stability in the Solomon Islands. The tragic events of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bali bombings and the 2004 South Asian tsunami also occurred on his watch.

“My father thought that politics would be very tough ... that I’d find it bruising.”

An economist with banking experience under his belt, Downer entered politics in 1984. While he bemoans the constant criticism that today’s politicians endure, he describes it as a noble profession: “It’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for your country,” he says. 

Listening to Downer today, you can still hear the pride in that concept of public service.

With just months left in his posting to London, he spoke with former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley in an interview for the INTHEBLACK magazine. The interview reveals a man whose passions extend beyond the conventional – from his aspirations for Australia House in London to the exhilaration of motor racing. 

At the site of the Bali bombing.Alex Malley: Alexander Downer, thank you for joining us here in Australia House in London. Does anyone ever get used to how beautiful this building is? 

Alexander Downer: Australia House is a great national icon. It was the first major building ever built by the federal government after federation and is the oldest continuously occupied diplomatic mission in London – not just Australia’s but of all the diplomatic missions. The interior marble, timber and stone were all shipped to the UK from Australia. So this is a very special building for Australians and I’d like to institute tours of it to make it more accessible to people.

Malley: You were the only boy in a family of four children and mum and dad were Sir Alick and Lady Mary, which is not the traditional way parents sound in Australia. Your dad was a well-respected politician himself …

Downer: Yes, he grew up in a different era … and was quite a lot older than my mother. He died in 1981. He was the son of a former premier of South Australia, so came from a background of political activism. Having gone to university over here [the UK] and being called to the bar here and so on, he ended up in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force – volunteers who served in World War II] and spent three and a half years in the Changi prisoner of war camp. People say he had a privileged background – well, it was mixed. He had a very, very tough time in Changi. Then he became a member of parliament and ended up right in the job that I’m in: the high commissioner in London.

Malley: Politics for you feels a little pre-ordained – your grandfather was premier in South Australia and your dad was in the ministry at a national level. Was there ever a time that you considered any other career as a young boy?

Downer: Interestingly enough, my father wasn’t very keen on me going into politics and he didn’t live to see me go into politics.

Malley: That sounds sensible to you now? 

Downer: Well, helping to run the country is a very noble thing to do, but the occupational profession of politics has become trashed, not necessarily just the behaviour of politicians – although there has been some poor behaviour on that front – but I think the constant criticism of people in public life. 

My father thought that politics would be very tough, which is definitely true, and he had this view that I was a sensitive child and I’d find it a bit bruising.

A lesson in leadership

Malley: Let’s go to the mid-1990s when you beat John Hewson for the leadership [of the Liberal Party]. I remember a very youthful and confident Alexander Downer. You were there for about eight months. Looking back with the wisdom of 20 years or so, what might you have done differently?

Downer: To take on a role like political leadership, you need experience. You don’t necessarily have to be old, but you need the right experience, because there are so many fine judgements you have to make. You also have to be mentally prepared for the huge assault that comes on you as a political leader.

I was shocked at the fusillade of abuse that came my way for everything. It’s hard to prepare for it. After I’d spent some years as the foreign minister, I obviously hardened and developed that experience – you’re able to calibrate the attacks on you to understand whether they matter or don’t matter. Rather than being slightly shocked by it, you realise it’s just the natural order of things; it’s unavoidable.

The important thing isn’t to concentrate on what the critics and the reviewers say but to concentrate on your job and what you’re doing. 

I was just too inexperienced for the job; I simply wasn’t mentally prepared for it. I suddenly discovered that as a political leader, you’ve got to cover every imaginable issue and you have to have thought through what you think about those issues. 

There are a lot of issues that I knew a lot about. I had an economics degree, I had been the shadow treasurer, I had worked in a bank, so I was able to do that job well. I had been the shadow minister for defence before I became the shadow treasurer. I had been a diplomat. My father had been [a diplomat], so I knew a fair bit about international relations. But I hadn’t thought a great deal about the mechanics of how the welfare system might work … if you want to become a political leader, you have to have thought through what you want to do in a whole raft of different areas.

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The right credentials

Malley: Looking at that issue of leadership, we’ve had a record number of prime ministers in a record period of time recently. We’ve had Kevin Rudd criticised because of a lack of experience, among other things. We’ve had Malcolm Turnbull criticised for perhaps not being in politics long enough, and so on. Where do you see the future of leadership – that people come from outside into politics or is it better that you come in early and learn the tools of the trade?

Downer: Neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Kevin Rudd came to leadership without some experience. Malcolm Turnbull had been a cabinet minister; Kevin Rudd had been a shadow minister and been in parliament for a fair few years. Ditto, Julia Gillard. You definitely need experience to be really good at anything. People like Bob Hawke would be the stand-out exception, who came into politics and very soon after became the prime minister. He’d been the president of the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] so had had an intensely political career.

Politics is … not like running a business, it’s not like being a professional, being a barrister. You need experience in politics to be good at politics. You have to be articulate, to make the right judgements, to have a philosophical foundation, to have a compass, and you have to know about a huge number of issues. Intellectually, it’s a very challenging task.

So, just to take someone who is the CEO of a major company and think she might or he might make a great politician , don’t be so sure. They might be absolutely hopeless at it, and this has happened through the years.

The Foreign Office

Malley: To your career as foreign minister, a record period of almost 12 years. There was Tampa [a ship that rescued asylum seekers north of Christmas Island], Timor, tsunamis, Bali, Iraq … But there was a very human moment – you were with Mick Keelty, the Australian Federal Police [AFP] commissioner at the time, you’re in forensic gear at the scene of the tsunami and you had just come out of a warehouse where there had been a mass of bodies – really horrific scenes. You’re acting as a politician, but how difficult was that as a person to see that?

Downer: I’ll never forget that experience; it was absolutely horrific. I kept trying to think, “It’s not about me. It’s not about the smell of rotting human bodies and so on. It’s not about what I’m feeling”. It was about supporting the AFP forensic team. I was the foreign minister; we had sent this AFP forensic team to help the Thais identify these bodies. Mick and I talked about whether we should fly out to where the bodies were being identified.

He said, “Well, you know I’m a policeman, I’m used to this sort of thing. You might not be, so maybe I’ll just go”. I said, “No, I sent these people, I have to go”. It’s a huge, difficult job for them to do. 

In situations like that, I would always advise people try to put yourself out of the scene – it wasn’t all about me: I haven’t lost anybody, I didn’t have to identify the bodies, I made a quick, politician-style visit. They stayed. 

There is quite a list of experiences that I had that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and hopefully most politicians will never experience these kinds of events. But in the nearly 12 years I was the foreign minister, a huge number of things happened – starting with the Asian economic crisis in 1998, the change of regime in Indonesia. [There were] huge upheavals in Indonesia and South-East Asia more generally, the East Timor crisis, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the intervention in the Solomon Islands. And then what the Americans used to call a war on terror – the list went on.

A love for racing cars

In motor racing mode: "I'm a little bit fearless."Malley: If I put Alexander Downer and V8 supercars in the same sentence, why would they have some relationship to each other?

Downer: It’s probably counterintuitive to people, but I’ve always been a bit of a petrol head. I get this from my mother – her brothers used to race cars and so on. It’s expired now, but I had a CAMS racing licence and a friend of mine and I jointly owned – still do – an open wheeler racing car. 

I find motor racing quite exhilarating. Unfortunately for passengers in cars with me, I’m a little bit fearless as well. I’ve done hot laps with people like [former Formula One driver] Mark Webber. When you’re hurtling into a corner at seemingly an impossible speed to get through the corner … it’s brilliant!

The Brexit decision

Malley: As a person, not as a high commissioner, what was your reaction to the Brexit decision?

Downer: I was surprised that “Leave” won, and of course the UK has done no planning for it because they all thought “Remain” would win. What does that mean for Australia? We might be able to get a better trade deal with the UK and we might be able to get a better visa deal down the track. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. 

That will be years away ... There’s an enormous amount of Australian investment here in the UK. And British firms invest very heavily in Australia. The UK is still our second-largest source of foreign investment after the US .?.?. Britain is our seventh-biggest trading partner, but it’s dwarfed by our trading relationships with North Asia and the US. But the investment relationship [with Britain] is much bigger than the investment relationships we have with Asian countries.

Highlights and lowlights

Downer: The really tragic moments such as the Bali bombing – going to Bali and seeing the devastation, the human devastation, hugging the families – you can’t keep your own tears back. The tsunami, too. In a lot of ways, they were the low moments. 

The high moments are the ones you don’t get much credit for. There’s a very good saying that “every success has a thousand fathers and every failure is an orphan”. Standing at the East Timor independence ceremony ... I thought that’s a culmination of a good few years’ work ... What we were able to do to rebuild the Solomon Islands I thought was very rewarding.

I wanted to make sure Australia didn’t miss out on the evolution of institutional architecture in East Asia; it’s really important to us in the long term. I wanted to get Australia into the East Asia Summit – it is one of the premier institutions of East Asia. We overcame the resistance of ... some quite important countries. 

Read next: Laurie Oakes reflects on 50 years of Australian political journalism


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