Downer by name, disaster by nature

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Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has waded into his old patch in a characteristically obnoxious and hamfisted way. Alan Austin takes a look at the Downer "resume".

(Image screenshot from ABC TV News. Click on image to watch the video on the ABC website.)

AS IF AUSTRALIA’S foreign policy isn’t precarious enough already. Tony Abbott is Prime Minister, Julie Bishop is Foreign Minister, Andrew Robb is Minister for Trade and all seem well out of their depth.

Now failed former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has gone on television to lecture Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on its foreign policy. In a monumental blunder, he accused the Indonesians of breaching Australian sovereignty.

Even were this so, this is not the role of a former Liberal Party leader who has botched virtually every task he has undertaken.

Downer’s failures as John Howard’s foreign minister are notorious.

They include:

  • Slashing aid to Indonesia at the depths of its recession by $22 million in the 1996 budget, then by another $11 million in 1997, costing thousands of lives.

  • Offending Indonesia through other inept actions, including the infamous 1998 letter from PM Howard to President Habibie on East Timor, regarded as triggering the 1999 massacres.

  • Falsely accusing Indonesian police of complicity in the 2004 bombing of the Australian embassy which killed 11 and injured hundreds. Later Downer lamely claimed that if he hadn’t repeated a baseless rumour he might have been criticised.

  • Dealing so ineptly with the Solomon Islands that Australia’s ambassador was expelled in 2006.

  • Damaging relations with Papua New Guinea to the point where PM Michael Somare threatened in 2006 to recall Australia’s high commissioner and suspend official visits.
Why, Alexander, why? (Image courtesy Grant Nowell / News Ltd)
  • Hindering global efforts on climate by not ratifying the Kyoto protocol.

  • Announcing that refugees at sea had thrown their children overboard when the government knew they hadn’t.

  • Diverting overseas aid funds to detention centres, embassy buildings, security and promoting trade;

  • Paying $300 million of overseas aid money illegally to Saddam Hussein through the Australian Wheat Board.

  • Claiming aid money diverted to detention centres in Nauru was for ‘humanitarian refugee resettlement’ while at the same time refusing refugee status to those eligible.

  • Reducing real overseas aid, after rorts, from 0.34 per cent of GNI to an all-time low of 0.19 per cent during a period of record surpluses.

  • With the USA, illegally invading Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

  • Continuing to support the illegal invasion after the false pretext had been exposed, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis.

  • Allowing US agents to torture Australian citizens Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks.

  • Allowing Hicks to be jailed without trial for five years, then obliging him to avoid further torture in jail only by pleading guilty to charges without trial.

  • Illegally deporting Vivian Alvarez Solon to the Philippines in 2001.

  • Illegally detaining Cornelia Rau for 10 months in 2004-05 in Baxter detention centre.

  • Wrongly accusing Dr Mohamed Haneef of terrorism and then jailing him after he was granted bail.

  • Ridiculing 43 former defence chiefs, diplomats and departmental heads when they expressed dismay in 2004 at Australia’s foreign policy. Downer’s colleague Dee-Anne Kelly called them ‘doddering daiquiri diplomats’.
(Image via Bill Leak / News Ltd)

There are others.

Downer’s ineptitude has not diminished since losing office.

In May 2008, when Western naval vessels were positioned off Burma to help disaster victims, he called for regime change. According to a furious Malcolm Fraser, then Professorial Fellow at the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law, this blunder justified the Burmese junta refusing assistance, costing thousands of lives.

In mid-2008, Downer was appointed UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Cyprus, supposedly to help revive the peace process in that divided Mediterranean island.

In five years in that role, he has spectacularly and embarrassingly failed. There has been no breakthrough. He has been a constant source of criticism and derision for his perceived partiality and ineptitude.

A commentator in 2010 observed:

'Alexander Downer shall pass, just as the offending air from a bad fart passes on, eventually, no matter how foul. But two forces will remain.'

An article today in the Cyprus Mail ridicules his failure:

'He could not talk about the weather without provoking a barrage of criticism of his alleged pro-Turkish bias, combined with calls for his immediate replacement.'

Even moderate comments are mocked simply because they emanate from Alexander Downer.

The Cyprus Mail claims his comments this week on the economy

'...could hardly be described as controversial or biased views, but the parties still felt obliged to have a go at him, even though they agreed with what he said. How absurd is that?'

To those familiar with the foreign policy failures of the Coalition in Australia since Rupert Murdoch took control in 2005, it may not be absurd at all.

But with Indonesia so central to Australia’s wellbeing, it is vital the failures of the Howard years are not repeated. So Abbott and Bishop will have their hands full in Jakarta next week.

As acting Labor Leader Chris Bowen said:

“I can't recall an Indonesian foreign minister taking a step like this in relation to Australia ever before … It underlines what a threat this is to an important bilateral relationship. It's a matter for this Government now to clear this up, to either repudiate Mr Downer's comments or to endorse them.”

The question is: are Abbott and Bishop up to the task? Or will they simply continue to serve the interests of the media organisations that put them into office?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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