Downer and Howard – Flippant and Opportunist


John Howard and Alexander Downer have attempted to present themselves as competent foreign policy managers. Simple analysis illustrates quite the reverse.

Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Howard demonstrated little interest in international affairs. Apart from his consistent backing for the US-Australia alliance (notably, through his support for the Vietnam War), there is little in Howard’s past to suggest foreign policy competence.

Whereas Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke both campaigned against Apartheid and were strongly supportive of the UN, Howard was either uninterested or ambivalent about these issues. And while Howard has since discovered the power of being ‘perceived’ as an international statesman, he remains characteristically antagonistic towards the UN.

Despite former ALP Foreign Minister Gareth Evans twisting himself into ethical knots trying to justify the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty and later, Keating’s close relations with former Indonesian President Suharto and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) no one ever accused Evans of being an intellectually unworthy Foreign Minister. In encountering Downer, however, we witness the triumph of Party political loyalty and monied family connections over intellectual substance. After a non-consequential career with DFAT, Downer entered Federal Parliament in 1984 where Howard rewarded him for his political support by appointing him to our most significant diplomatic office in 1996.

It is telling that the intellectual godfather of the Australian ‘Jakarta Lobby’, Richard Woolcott, a former Ambassador to Indonesia, has commented that ‘Downer doesn’t have the intellectual strength of, say, a Sir Garfield Barwick or a Gareth Evans.’ Even those that argue that he has developed into a competent Foreign Minister cannot ignore Downer’s lapses of judgement or his obvious lack of policy imagination.

On assuming office in 1996, the Coalition set about rejecting the foundations of the Australian foreign policy they’d inherited. The nationalist rhetoric of the Howard Government first surfaced in the 1997 DFAT White Paper, called ‘In the National Interest’, wherein core concepts such as multilateralism and the notion of Australia as a middle power in the international system, were undermined. Instead, there was the ‘National Interest Test’, which dispensed with grand foreign policy constructs assisted by the belief that foreign policy is only the hard-headed pursuit of ‘core national interests’.

These interests were defined in the White Paper as ‘the security of the Australian nation and the jobs and standard of living of the Australian people’. As Alison Broinowski argues in her book Howard’s War, traditional support for the United Nations was downgraded by the Coalition despite once being ‘an unquestioned aspect of Australia’s foreign policy’.

For most of its tenure, the current Government has expressed, through Downer, stinging criticisms of and reservations about the United Nations and the value of international treaties. For Australia to abandon multilateralism would seem highly unwise, given its proven record of helping us ‘punch above our weight’. But the shift towards bilateral deals which now dominates Australian foreign policy has been dubbed ‘enlightened realism’ by Downer.

In spite of fiercely criticising Paul Keating’s approach towards Indonesia whilst in Opposition, Howard and Downer have nonetheless continued his policies. In his book, Reluctant Saviour, Clinton Fernandes points out that prior to East Timor’s independence ballot in 1999, every effort was made by the Australian Government to conceal both Indonesian atrocities and damaging intelligence leaks that confirmed the connections between the TNI and pro-Indonesian militias.

This highlights the incompetence of Downer and Howard at foreign affairs. Both men, and DFAT, rejected the arguments of Stanley Roth, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, who argued that peacekeepers must be on the ground for the ballot in order to prevent a bloodbath. Despite the expert assessment of Australian Lt Colonel Lance Collins, who authored a 1998 ‘formal intelligence estimate’ prior to the ballot in 1999 stating the exact opposite, Howard and Downer persistently argued against peacekeepers for the ballot and that the TNI was a neutral party without connections to the proxy militia’s.

With the post-referendum rampage of TNI and Militia killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands more, the Howard Government was forced to act. At the 1999 APEC conference in New Zealand Howard was publicly critical of US efforts toward East Timor. This was rather extraordinary, given the facts. Noam Chomsky, in Hegemony or Survival, highlights the importance of the pressure from the Clinton Administration in forcing the TNI to accept the UN’s INTERFET mission in East Timor. According to one confidential source, Australian military intelligence officers briefed the US army to assist possible ground actions. But, Dr Ashton Calvert, then Secretary of DFAT, under the direction of Downer, rebuffed a possible US offer of marines for referendum peacekeeping.

Post-INTERFET, Howard basked in its glory labelling it at one stage a liberation. Nonetheless, the Howard Government began to rebuild the pre-INTERFET policy norms with Jakarta as soon as it was able.

When it comes to the most serious foreign policy issue confronting Australia today ‘War on Terror’ Howard took the almost unheard-of step of invoking the ANZUS Treaty the day after the World Trade Centre attacks, without any reference to Cabinet. There is nothing in ANZUS that requires such military posturing it only requires friendship and consultation. However, the speed of Howard’s response on 12th September led to Australian involvement in Afghanistan and created US expectations of similar involvement in Iraq.

Howard has a history of following the US’s foreign policy leads refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, to withdraw from Iraq and the abandonment of Australian David Hicks to flawed US military prosecution are prime examples. This tendency climaxed in Howard’s willingness to bypass the mechanisms of the UN in 2003, due to the supposedly imminent threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs. Borrowing belligerent US rhetoric Howard soon afterwards also spoke of pre-emptive military strikes against unspecified terrorist targets in Asia.

Membership of the US-led invasion of Iraq required Australia, for the very first time in our history, to actually be part of starting a war. Despite the Bush Administration’s death throes, it is still seeking a military solution through the so-called troop surge to the political nightmare of Iraq. Such strategic decisions are unrelated to Australian regional security, but Howard continues to place Australian foreign policy in the US-Iraq straitjacket.

For example, while British forces have already begun a staged withdrawal from Southern Iraq, Howard and Downer diligently defend the continued presence of Australia’s token forces as somehow critical to the very survival of Iraq. In fact, Australians remain in Iraq as a testament to the hubris of Howard and Downer, and their need to uphold the interests of a failed US Administration.

The belief that Australian support in Iraq can ever guarantee US military protection, at some future stage, flies in the face of reality. The current US Ambassador to Australia, Robert McCallum, told the National Press Club in February that he had not even read the 840-word ANZUS document.

Closer to home, because of foreign policy decisions made since 2003, Australia has gradually reached a point where its relations with the Pacific, and most importantly Papua New Guinea, are dire. The language of ‘failed States’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘the arc of instability’ was used to justify Australian-led intervention in the Solomon Islands in 2003. Prior to RAMSI, the Solomon Islands held almost non-existent trade and defence concerns for Australia.

RAMSI may have restored law and order, but it is proving much more difficult to solve the complex ethnic, political and economic tensions in the Solomon Islands. RAMSI’s operations have corresponded with Howard’s tough ‘National Interest’ approach towards Pacific affairs using blunt language and strong-arm tactics to secure outcomes to Australia’s liking (including the ‘Pacific Solution’).

There was a time that Downer thought this style of intervention folly in the extreme. He changed tack and ever dutifully announced a sudden about-face later.

As we enter the final stages of negotiating a new treaty with Indonesia (the Lombok Agreement), the language used to defend Australia’s current relationship with Jakarta, especially in West Papua, invokes the failed policies of the previous Keating Government on East Timor.

As this summary shows, the greatest legacy of the Howard-Downer years will be the triumph of political spin over any clear strategic outlook coupled with the destruction of intellectualism in foreign policy and its replacement with cynical opportunism.

This legacy will fail to conceal just how flippantly these men have made some of the most important Australian foreign policy decisions of the last decade.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.