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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Honourable
 Alexander Downer

In office
11 March 1996 – 3 December 2007
Prime Minister John Howard
Preceded by Gareth Evans
Succeeded by Stephen Smith
Constituency Mayo

Born 9 September 1951 (1951-09-09) (age 58)
Adelaide, South Australia
Political party Liberal Party of Australia
Spouse(s) Nicola (née Robinson)
Alma mater Newcastle University (UK)

Alexander John Gosse Downer (born 9 September 1951) is an Australian former Liberal politician who was Foreign Minister of Australia from March 1996 to December 2007, the longest-serving in Australian history. He was also the leader of the parliamentary Opposition for eight months from 1994 to 1995.


Early history and career

Downer was born in Adelaide, South Australia, into one of the state's prominent established political families. His father, Sir Alec 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, Lady Downer (née Mary Gosse), is descended from early immigrants to South Australia. Downer is related via the Gosse family to Edmund Gosse, a famed English literary critic.[1]

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,[2] and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. From 1975 to 1976, he worked as an economist for the Bank of New South Wales,[3] before entering the Australian Diplomatic Service, where he served until 1982.[3] 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.[3] From 1983 to 1984, he also served as the Executive Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce.[3] 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.

The Liberals were in opposition from 1983 to 1996, and Downer held a number of positions on the Opposition front bench from 1987 onwards. In 1993, he became Shadow Treasurer. When the Liberals unexpectedly lost the 1993 election to Paul Keating, Downer began to be talked of as a possible leader, and in May 1994 he succeeded Dr John Hewson as leader of the Liberal party after defeating him in a leadership ballot.

Opposition Leader

As Liberal leader, Downer initially attracted record levels of public support. Then aged 43, he was perceived as a fresh-faced alternative to a government in its twelfth year of power. His support base was quickly eroded, however, by a series of embarrassing public blunders, the most famous of which occurred at a formal dinner. Promoting the Liberal party slogan "The Things That Matter", Downer then joked that the party's domestic violence policy would accordingly be named the "things that batter", referring to abusive husbands.

On 9 January 1995, internal Liberal Party polling showed that with Downer as leader, the Coalition had slim chance of holding its marginal seats, 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 John 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.[4]

With a tenure of just over eight months, Downer is to date the shortest-serving leader of the federal Liberal Party. He is also, with Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, one of three 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?'[5]

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[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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. [9] This intervention has been attributed by Osama Bin Laden as provoking a fatwā on Australia and Australian interests. [10] [11] [12] [13]

In 2003, Downer signed an agreement over the gas and oil reserves in the Timor Gap.[14] 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 [15][16][17][18] 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.[19]

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.[20]

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. [21] [22] [23]

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.[24]

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.[25][26]

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."[27]

In August 2006, it was claimed by a former weapons inspector Dr John Gee, that Downer had in 2004 suppressed information that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was fundamentally flawed. [28] [29] [30]

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 Iraq oil for food scandal and testified that he was ignorant of the kickbacks paid to the Iraq government, despite claims by the Opposition Labor Party that several 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. [31]

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. [32] 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. [33]

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. [34]

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."[35]

Post-ministerial career

Following the Howard Government's defeat at the 2007 federal election, Downer declined to serve on the Opposition frontbench, amid widespread speculation that he would resign his seat and seek new employment. However Downer did not immediately resign but went to the Opposition backbench.

A longtime supporter of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Downer has played a leading role opposing moves to replace the Queen with a president.[36]

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.[37] Stephen Smith, the current Australian Foreign Minister, stated that the Rudd government supports the potential appointment.[38] He also informed colleagues in May that he was considering staying in politics with a view to becoming shadow treasurer under either Brendan Nelson or Malcolm Turnbull.[39]

Downer resigned from Parliament on 14 July 2008.[40] His resignation triggered a by-election in the seat of Mayo. Downer took on a part-time role with a new lobbying firm, Bespoke Approach, in partnership with former political adversary Nick Bolkus, and former Liberal advisor Ian Smith (the husband of former Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja).[41] Of former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson, Downer said:

It is one thing to start barking on about reducing fuel excise by 5c, but what's your point? Why would you want to do that? You need a broader narrative. The Liberal Party does not have a story to tell at the moment. Just a bunch of ad hoc comments.[42]

Downer also serves in a part-time position as the United Nations special envoy to Cyprus, commenced on 14 July 2008.[43] Downer is now advising British corporate investigation firm Hakluyt & Company.[44]

Private 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.[45] They have four children, Georgina, Olivia, Edward, and Henrietta.


  1. ^ Gosse, Sir James Hay (1876 – 1952) Biographical Entry – Australian Dictionary of Biography Online
  2. ^ Mitchell, Alex (1994-06-03). "Radley pins its hopes on Master Downer". Sun Herald (John Fairfax Group Ltd): p. 30. 
  3. ^ a b c d Staff writer (2006-08-29). "Alexander Downer". The Advertiser (News Limited): p. 44. 
  4. ^ Ward, Ian (December 1995). "Australian Political Chronicle: January-June 1995". Australian Journal of Politics and History 41 (3). 
  5. ^ A gladiator in the political arena: ABC 3/7/2008
  6. ^ Taking his leave: The Age 2/7/2008
  7. ^ Disarmament Diplomacy: - Aftermath Of US Senate CTBT Rejection
  8. ^
  9. ^ Staff writer (1999-09-15). "UN approves Timor force". BBC News (British Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  10. ^ Williams, Daryl (2003-02-26). "Address to 'International Studies' & 'Australian Foreign Policy' students". Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  11. ^ Parkinson, Tony (2002-11-14). "'Bin Laden' voices new threat to Australia". The Age (Fairfax Media). Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  12. ^ "Program Transcript – Former CIA worker analyses bin Laden threat". Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2005-08-02. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  13. ^ Johnston, Tim (2005-05-11). "East Timor Tightens Security After Terror Warning". Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  14. ^ The World Today Archive - Greens & Democrats: East Timor robbed over gas deal
  15. ^ "Program Transcript – Greens & Democrats: East Timor robbed over gas deal". The World Today – ABC Local Radio. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2003-03-06. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  16. ^ Oxfam Australia :: The future of East Timor
  17. ^ Save East Timor
  18. ^ The Guardian
  19. ^ Anger in East Timor as Australia plays tough over gas reserves | World news | The Guardian
  20. ^ "Program Transcript – Govt under fire in Bali intelligence row". 7:30 Report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2003-06-18. Retrieved 2007-08-30. 
  21. ^ "Program Transcript – War critics call for WMD evidence". Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2003-06-02. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  22. ^ "Program Transcript – Secrets and Lies". Four Corners. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2005-02-15. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  23. ^ Staff writer (2004-01-26). "Wait and see on Iraqi weapons: Downer". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 2004-06-26. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  24. ^ Downer launches own missile on eve of visit to North Korea - National -
  25. ^ The World Today - Falun Gong launches legal action against Downer
  26. ^ Mike Steketee: The price is rights | The Australian
  27. ^ Chinese Defectors Reveal Chinese Strategy and Agents in Australia
  28. ^ Wilkinson, Marian (2006-08-31). "Weapons cover-up revealed". Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media). Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  29. ^ Wilkinson, Marian (2006-09-01). "Weapons: Downer admits being told". Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media). Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  30. ^ Staff writer (2006-09-01). "Rudd accuses Downer of WMD report cover-up". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  31. ^ Baker, Richard (2006-07-03). "Australia's other war in Iraq". The Age (Fairfax Media). Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  32. ^ "Program Transcript – Downer backs Guantanamo military commissions". The 7.30 Report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2005-08-02. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  33. ^ Melia, Micheal (2007-03-30). "Australian Gitmo Detainee Gets 9 Months". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-03-31. 
  34. ^ Staff writer (2006-03-23). "Papua refugees get Australia visa". BBC News (British Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  35. ^ Australia, China to launch security talks next year | World | Reuters
  36. ^ "Pressure for 2010 vote on republic".,21985,23262954-662,00.html. 
  37. ^ "Rudd supports possible Downer move to UN". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 21 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-22. 
  38. ^ AAP (2008). Smith backs Downer as UN envoy to Cyprus. Retrieved 2 June 2008.
  39. ^ AdelaideNow... Turmoil over Downer front bench bid
  40. ^ Downer quits politics, eyes UN role: The Age 3/7/2008
  41. ^ AdelaideNow... Alexander Downer will quit on Thursday - and take up UN role
  42. ^ No regrets as Alexander Downer quits for UN job: The Australian 1/7/2008
  43. ^ ABC News (2008). UN names Downer as Cyprus envoy. Retrieved 12 July 2008.
  44. ^ Downer joins Eddington at 'spy' company
  45. ^ It's an Honour: AM

External links

Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Mayo
1984 – 2008
Succeeded by
Jamie Briggs
Party political offices
Preceded by
John Hewson
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
1994 – 1995
Succeeded by
John Howard
Political offices
Preceded by
John Hewson
Leader of the Opposition of Australia
1994 – 1995
Succeeded by
John Howard
Preceded by
Gareth Evans
Minister for Foreign Affairs
1996 – 2007
Succeeded by
Stephen Smith


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