Alexander Downer is a tough political animal. Like Tony Abbott, he plays his politics hard, and like Abbott he also happens to be one of the Prime Minister’s favourites.
John Howard positively radiates whenever the well-bred Foreign Minister gets up in question time to dish it out. He beams and nods in agreement as his Foreign Minister plays the man, or woman, on the other side. It’ll come as no surprise that his favourite targets are Kevin Rudd and Kim Beazley.
You don’t get much of the venomous tone of the chamber from the television coverage but in the Press Gallery the insults and barbs exchanged across the floor from the front benches are more apparent. And by far the most consistently vicious come from the Foreign Minister. He just can’t help himself. He’s a stand-out bully in a chamber brimming with bruisers.
Downer can dish it out, but like most bullies, he doesn’t like it when he’s on the receiving end. And he’s been receiving an awful pasting of late.
First there’s AWB. What a mess. Downer’s become so sensitive about it in the Parliament he can barely contain himself. In the last parliamentary session, after another round of persistent questioning, he called Kevin Rudd a ‘halfwit’ and labelled Kim Beazley ‘lazy and idle.’ But as more than one commentator has pointed out since, if anyone could be accused of sloth on this matter it’s the Foreign Minister himself or, at the very least, his office.
And AWB still has a way to run. Terrence Cole is due to deliver his report on the matter in just a few weeks, and while it’s not in his brief to pass judgment on the Government, an adverse finding against AWB will still present some difficulties for the Minister who was at the big desk at the time when a senior diplomat was writing notes about ‘problems’ and ‘service fees.’ Like just about every other document relating to AWB,
the Foreign Minister says he hasn’t seen any of the notes.
And then there’s the other troubling three-letter acronym that just won’t go away: WMD. Last week, Dr John Gee one of the most highly respected international weapons experts in the Iraq Survey Group went public with claims that supported another Australian weapons inspector and whistleblower, Rod Barton. Gee detailed how he told Alexander Downer during a private meeting in March 2004 that there were no WMD in Iraq and that he believed the whole hunt for them was corrupted and little more than a political face-saving exercise run by the CIA.
Despite this, in the run-up to the 2004 election, Downer and the Prime Minister continued for some months to express views to the contrary.
Once again, the Foreign Minister seems not to have been paying much attention to the detail. John Gee is suffering from a serious illness. So serious in fact that many who knew him and saw his interview on the 7.30 Report last week rang in, deeply troubled by his obvious deterioration. But sick as he is, Gee’s recollection of his meeting with Downer is crystal clear.
Downer’s memory of the discussion with one of the world’s most respected experts on the matter, at a time when the justification for war in Iraq was a big domestic political point of difference, was not so precise. Downer rarely looks less than confident on his feet but, at his doorstop press conference in a Sydney park last week, he was decidedly uncomfortable:
Yeah, [John Gee] had a lot of reservations about the assumptions they were using, from recollection. I mean, you’re testing my recollection here, but the assumptions they used in the search process. But, of course, in the end it’s all academic because whatever process they used in the search, they didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, and I mean, it was by then, I forget, this is early 2004 by then this was nearly a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, remember. So by then it was an increasingly apparent they weren’t going to find anything. As we know, they didn’t. Well, I think obviously our optimism gradually declined as time went on.
As we’ve seen in the past, this is not a Government that welcomes criticism or dissent from within its bureaucratic ranks. It’s not alone there of course no government likes to hear things that don’t fit with its political imperative.
Senior and junior public servants alike certainly feel intimidated. (Post-It notes are now among the most valuable tools of the trade.) Some of them are starting to speak out but usually, only once they’re untouchable.
Andrew Podger, another respected former public servant, spelled out some of his concerns in his farewell speech as Public Service Commissioner last year:
Fewer file notes, diaries destroyed regularly, documents given security classifications at higher levels than are strictly required and handled to minimise the chances of FOI access the trail that is left is often now just a skeleton without any sign of the flesh and blood of the real process, and even the skeleton is only visible to those with a need to know.
In some cases the Government’s response has been to vilify the whistleblowers Andrew Wilkie and Mike Scrafton come to mind
There have been no such attacks on John Gee. As one very senior bureaucrat attached to the security apparatus said when he rang me shortly after we put Gee’s interview to air last week: ‘John Gee is a byword for integrity. His public accusations of political manipulation were all the more powerful because this was a bloke who has, in the past, said very little.’
Alexander Downer, on the other hand, has said an awful lot. But none of it has been nearly as convincing as the heart-felt disenchantment of a dying man.
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