Some years ago, I went to a ''Big Ideas'' forum hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies. The session was moderated by ABC board member Janet Albrechtsen who related a conversation she had had with our then foreign minister Alexander Downer, who described his after- hours schedule to her. Let's play some of the tape:
... after he had a particularly bad day on the political hustings, he slinks home and he sits on the sofa with a glass of whisky turn[ing] on the television to watch FoxNews just to remind himself that there is some sanity left in the world.
Sanity? In FoxNews?
In recent times, Albrechtsen has again found reason to relate to her fans her conversations with Downer, who as you all know is thankfully no longer our foreign minister. In fact, he soon will no longer be the Federal Member for Mayo.
In The Australian on Tuesday, Downer tells Albrechtsen that he has no regrets about his 25 years or so in Parliament. No regrets? Sounds a bit like Opposition Leader Dr Brendan Nelson claiming he has no regrets about that time in 1993 when as AMA president he screamed over a megaphone, "I have never voted Liberal in my life."
Let's survey Downer's history and see if he has reason to have no regrets. Some years after Nelson said those immortal words, the parliamentary Liberal Party decided to give Dr John Hewson the flick and disappoint many media pundits who predicted Bronwyn Bishop (yes, her!) would lead the charge against the Labor Party. Aren't we all glad political journalists don't get to vote in internal Liberal ballots.
Instead, the party opted for an allegedly new generation of leaders with Downer as leader and Peter Costello as his deputy. Downer was 43 at the time. It was a tough time for the Opposition. The Coalition had just lost the seemingly unlosable election in 1993 after trying to sell a GST (a key feature of then opposition leader John Hewson's Fightback! package) to the electorate.
Downer issued a rather strange set of motherhood statements posing as policies called The Things That Matter. Downer's quaint summary of his policy platform makes, er, interesting reading: '
When we release our domestic violence policy, the things that batter. Our marginal seat strategy, the swings that matter. And our family policy, look this is a reflection of our own home I suppose, the flings that matter.
In one verbal swoop, he managed to get a certain 51 per cent minority in the electorate rather offended. Downer later explained it away as a joke. His party colleagues weren't laughing, and made sure he didn't last in the job beyond a few days over eight months, making his the shortest period of Opposition leadership in Liberal Party history. You'd think he'd at least have regrets about that.
Strangely enough, Downer now criticises Nelson for not being able to provide a ''broader narrative'' to compete with Labor. I mean, give the guy a break. For a start, he now actually does vote Liberal.
Downer agreed to hand John Howard leadership in January 1996 in a deal that saw Downer become foreign minister (Australia's 38th) in the Howard government.
No doubt Albrechtsen will dispute my claim that Downer should find lots to regret about his term as foreign minister. He involved us in a disastrous war in Iraq which has cost God-knows how many Iraqi lives (not to mention troops and contractors). The only people who seem to have benefited from this war, as ABC-TV's Four Corners exposed the other night, were companies such as Halliburton.
Downer should also regret the role he made our country play in the so-called war on terror, often at the expense of Australian citizens. In this respect, Albrechtsen might wish to read reports in her newspaper about ASIO's prior knowledge that Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib would be sent to Egypt as part of the American practice of extraordinary rendition. Given that ASIO knew about this (and probably about what would likely happen to Habib), I find it difficult to believe that Downer knew nothing.
And if Albrechtsen doesn't believe this story, she might like to read her colleague Caroline Overington's book Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board Scandal and ask why Overington isn't alone in wondering why Howard didn't sack Downer once the full extent of AWB corruption became known. When questioned in the subsequent Cole inquiry in April 2006, Downer took a cue from Ronald Reagan and confidently declared, "I don't recall" some four times.
But perhaps Downer's greatest moment was when, in response to then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd's speech in Mandarin at the APEC meeting in Sydney, Downer declared he could speak fluent French.
Still, it would be unfair to characterise "Lord" Downer's political tenure in such negative terms. I mean, what about declaring victory in Iraq? Whoops, we haven't won. What about the Free Trade Agreements? Er, that was the minister for trade. Seriously, surely Downer must have had some successes.
Um, er, I don't recall.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. A version of this article was first published in The Canberra Times on Saturday 5 July 2008.
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf