Was Alexander Downer an 'irresponsibly witty' trier or one of Australia’s greatest foreign ministers? As our longest-serving foreign minister fades from the political stage, The Interpreter invites you to take part in a series of blog seminars on Downer’s achievements and place in history.

Starting next week, I will post ten columns on the Downer legacy. But I want each of those columns to be informed by your views.

Many readers of The Interpreter will have dealt with or worked with Alexander Downer. Comments, stories, anecdotes and judgements are all welcome. Tell us what you thought of Downer as Minister, and give us your view (via the EMAIL THE EDITOR button below) of how the various parts come together in the Downer Legacy. What has it meant for Australia to have Alexander Downer as Foreign Minister from 1996 to the end of 2007?

This week, I will introduce the series with some headings and thoughts on the direction of the ten columns, to stimulate your thinking. If you start sending in your views now (again, using the EMAIL THE EDITOR button below), they can be included in the individual assessments as they are published on The Interpreter.

Here are my ten headings, followed by some thoughts on the first three:

  1. Downer and Howard
  2. The US alliance
  3. The war on terror
  4. Northeast Asia
  5. Southeast Asia
  6. The South Pacific
  7. Downer’s impact on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  8. Political warrior and foreign policy thinker
  9. The Downer sense of humour
  10. Ranking Alexander Downer

1. Howard and Downer: To write only about Downer’s 'legacy' would require an almost impossible effort to unscramble the relationship with the Prime Minister. Thus, one important element of the legacy of these dozen years in office was the creation of the Howard-Downer approach to foreign policy.

At the start of Howard’s Prime Ministership he was hesitant, even doubtful, about Downer’s capabilities to perform as Foreign Minister. After a rocky start, the two men built a surprisingly stable partnership. Near the end of power, there was almost a reversal of the original roles. Howard turned to Downer as his most trusted colleague to undertake the disastrous poll of Cabinet about whether Howard should remain as Prime Minister.

One of Downer’s achievements as a Foreign Minister was how close he got to Howard. This closeness meant that in the later years of his Ministry, Downer usually got what he wanted out of Cabinet. Getting Howard’s agreement normally meant that Cabinet’s agreement followed.

Ability to coordinate policy with the leader and capacity to steer submissions through Cabinet are two measures of a Foreign Minister. Never allowing more than an inch of light between Downer’s public position and Howard’s state of mind required a lot of work. Achieving that harmony involved Downer soft-peddling his own instincts on subjects as diverse as Pauline Hanson and allowing in guest workers from the South Pacific.   

2. The US Alliance: The Howard Government took office pledging to put new life into the US alliance and, post-9/11, it became the first Australian government to invoke the treaty. It is cynical – but also accurate – to view the US-Australia free trade treaty as some reward for this loyalty. The judgement of history will be whether unwavering support for the US did strengthen the alliance or introduced some stress lines that may threaten its longevity.

As Owen Harries observed in 2006, it is extremely dubious whether 'uncritical, loyal support for a bad, failed American policy' will enhance Australia’s standing as an ally: 'A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not one to be sought.' Downer says 'the Iraq war was going to happen whatever we did', arguing that Australia could not have stopped the US invasion: 'Some people say you could have gone and screamed in George Bush’s face and told him not to do it. It wouldn’t have mattered.'

Downer’s standing as Foreign Minister will be tied to the outcome in Iraq just as Hasluck’s was tied to the outcome of the Vietnam war. And Hasluck is now a fair way down the rankings because of his responsibility for marching Australia into a failed war.

3. The War on Terror: The 'war on terror' is an American phrase, and Australia's involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq owes much to the American alliance. It is useful to go back and re-read the speeches that Howard and Downer made in Parliament on the 2003 resolution to enter the Iraq war. The Weapons of Mass Destruction evaporated. The claim to be acting on behalf of the authority of the UN looked thin even at the time. The Iraq adventure has impaired, not bolstered the workings of the international system. What remains from those speeches is the importance of the US alliance and the confidence that Iraq is going to be a better place because of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The 'war on terror' in Asia has a different context and dynamic for Australia because of the two bombing attacks in Bali and the explosion at the gates of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Australian lives have been lost. The language about Australia being on the front line carried some truth.

The Howard-Downer response was vigorous and backed by ten billion dollars of extra spending on security and intelligence. Yet in Southeast Asia, particularly, it was a more nuanced, less war-like reaction. The Australian Federal Police has become the lead agency in fighting extremists in Asia. The network of bilateral anti-terrorism agreements Downer created in Asia rested on principles of cooperation, training and intelligence exchange. When Howard angered Southeast Asia by promising pre-emptive attacks on terrorist bases, Downer waved away the Prime Minister’s words as hypothetical. Anyway, he said, Howard was musing more about the dangers in the failing states of the South Pacific, not Australia’s established partners in Asia.