Downer, Alexander John Gosse

Downer, Alexander John Gosse
▪ 1995

      Political dynasties are rare in Australia, where the widespread egalitarian ethos works against inherited wealth and power. Thus, when Alexander Downer became leader of the Liberal Party of Australia on May 23, 1994, he faced not only a party in disarray but also the burden of a distinguished background. Downer's father, Sir Alexander Downer, had been a Cabinet minister in Sir Robert Menzies' government and Australia's High Commissioner in London. His grandfather, Sir John Downer, was one of the founding fathers of the Australian Commonwealth and a senator in the Australian Parliament. Downer's first tasks as Liberal leader were to distance himself from accusations of being born with a silver spoon in his mouth and to rebut the charge of having no experience of grassroots life.

      Public opinion polls soon put Downer and his conservative party ahead of Prime Minister Paul Keating and his Australian Labor Party government. Downer made a series of mistakes in his handling of Aboriginal policy, however, and by the end of the year the trend was reversed. Downer's troubles began when he said that a Liberal government would consider scrapping the Native Title Act, under which Aborigines were encouraged to take up large-scale outback land ownership. He made matters worse by a visit to settlements in the Alice Springs area, where what he saw at Kintore, Desert Bore, Areyonga, Yuendumu, and Utopia so unnerved him that he made a series of contradictory and confusing statements, causing his approval rating of 53% at the beginning of the trip to dive to only 34% by the time he returned home. Downer's many supporters brushed off the nosedive in the polls. Chastened nonetheless, he was even more resolved than ever to bring true former prime minister Bob Hawke's prophecy that Downer would be Australia's next prime minister. To this end the Liberal leader took up an aggressive position, replying to ridicule in kind and drawing attention to Keating's 1994 purchase of a $2 million home in which to house his French clock collection.

      Downer was born on Sept. 9, 1951, went to school at Geelong Grammar, and continued his education in England at Radley College and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He began his working career as an economist with the Westpac Bank; however, he moved quickly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as a diplomat in Australian embassies in Belgium and Luxembourg. In December 1984 he was elected to Parliament, where his boyish good humour, confidence, and frank reaction to the difficulties that crossed his path endeared him to his party. As the Adelaide Advertiser put it, he showed up most other Canberra politicians by getting out into the real world to study problems head on.

      (A.R.G. GRIFFITHS)

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Universalium. 2010.

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