Sandy Heads for the Hills


It is, indeed, the end of a vaguely memorable and ill-defined era.

Australian public life has lost a colossus this week, as Alexander "Pookie Bear" Downer announced an end to his political life, selflessly abandoning his burgeoning career in irritating whining to enter the thrill-packed dangerous world of business consultancy while also travelling to Cyprus to give everyone a good talking to.

It is, incidentally, incumbent upon me to note that Downer’s move comes at the very same time that Lleyton Hewitt’s wife Bec announced her second pregnancy. I am not implying anything here, just pointing out the coincidence that Bec Hewitt announces she’s pregnant, and suddenly Alexander Downer has to quit his job and leave the country. Just sayin’.

But come, this is not the time for idle and scurrilous speculation about whisky-drenched nights in the Adelaide Hills. No, this is a time for reflection, for looking back at the remarkable tale of a man who managed to defy his humble origins in one of Australia’s most prominent and powerful political dynasties, and rise to a position where he was frequently in the same room as the country’s most powerful politicians, equipped with nothing but grit, determination, an expensive private school education and a comprehensive network of family connections. An impressive journey for a simple boy who used to gaze up at the stars above Geelong Grammar and vow that someday, he would be the Liberal Party’s greatest disaster.

Of course, the Downer story is more than just wavy hair and failure. His achievements as Foreign Minister were vast, reversing the policy trends of his predecessors by supporting East Timorese independence and not having sex with Cheryl Kernot. There were certainly criticisms of Downer’s performance as Foreign Minister, the chattering classes constantly droning on about illegal and immoral wars, cruelty to asylum seekers, screwing over the newly independent Timorese, undermining the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, repellently oily obsequiousness to the United States and stunning incompetence in the execution of his responsibilities as a member of parliament, a cabinet minister and a human being.

Thanks to Bill Leak

But these aside, his tenure was pretty alright. One thing one cannot deny is that he was the longest serving Foreign Minister Australia has ever had, which makes an elegant counterpoint to his career as Opposition Leader.

And that career was nothing if not memorable. As Leader of the Liberals during the dark days of the mid-1990s when arts grants roamed the land unfettered and Paul Keating ruled with increasing insanity from his fiery mountain lair, Downer brought a fresh approach to politics, intoxicating the public with his bold mix of youthful vigour, grating voice and jokes about domestic violence.

Admittedly, his jovial reference to "The Things That Batter" precipitated a catastrophic collapse in his public approval ratings, but secretly, most people thought it was pretty funny. And today he can be seen as ahead of his time: I don’t think we can ever truly come to grips with the issue of violence against women until we get it out in the open and laugh at it. Just as we did with Downer himself.

The Liberal Party, in fact, owes an enormous debt to Downer, since he cleared the decks for the ascendancy of John Howard. By plumbing almost unimaginable lows, Downer created an opportunity for Howard to look great by comparison. "Wow," people thought to themselves in 1995, "I used to think Howard was a creepy little vole of a man, but compared to Downer, I guess he’s pretty good." In much the same way as eating live cockroaches becomes far more tolerable after spending a week immersed in horse-vomit, Howard’s leadership came as a breath of fresh, insectivore air after Downer. And for that, the Liberals, thank him.

Brendan Nelson, in fact, would do well to heed the helpful and non-bitter advice that Downer gave him, as an expert in being a struggling Opposition Leader who nobody likes. As Downer says, the party "does not have a story to tell at the moment", or at least, the story they do have is quite a dull and uninteresting one and unfortunately all the characters are Liberals.

And so now Alexander moves on to his next great adventure. He will be going into business as a consultant with former Labor senator Nick Bolkus and Ian Smith, husband of former Democrats senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, who also finds herself at a loose end after powerful microscopes found traces of Democrats in Parliament House last week, sparking a call to the exterminators.

The company Downer will be joining is called "Bespoke Approach", a name that evokes the man himself by being at once pretentious, uninformative and ill-chosen.

But of course his greatest challenge will be his new role as the UN’s special envoy to Cyprus. Cyprus is, of course, a hotspot of violence and conflict, where religious and ethnic tensions constantly threaten to erupt, and where long-held grievances between the Turkish and Greek segments of the population continue to fester. Downer, being not only a former economist, but fluent in French, would appear to be just the man for the job.

Downer will surely usher in a new age of peace and happiness for Cypriots of all stripes, utilising the skills he learnt at the feet of John "The Great Uniter" Howard. No doubt the Cypriots themselves have been watching Australian politics since 1996 with a deep sense of yearning, knowing that their problems could be solved, if only a brave hero with a steely resolve and an overwhelming sense of entitlement would ride into town, currant-bun eyes ablaze, and cut through all the nonsense and pointless bickering to let everyone know how crap Brendan Nelson is. I think the Cypriots deserve to know.

So good luck, Mr Downer, wherever you may go in this zany world. Lefties may scoff, cartoonists may snigger, the general population may struggle in six months to recall any more than the vaguest sense of familiarity at the mention of your name, but to the true believers, you will always be, in the truest sense, a person who did some things at one point.

We salute you.

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.