Meet the Politician: 5 Things We Learned from Hon. Alexander Downer, Former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs

By Ben Stetson

Thursday 06th June

The Hon. Alexander Downer joined us at Pagefield this week to discuss his experience from a rich career in Australian politics and international affairs. After a decade as Australia’s chief diplomat and a spell as the High Commissioner in the UK, Downer gave guests his two cents on Brexit, leadership and the changing faces of politics.

I’m walking away ?

A veteran negotiator of both bilateral and multilateral agreements, Downer unequivocally condemned the British Parliament for tying the Prime Minister’s hands in the Brexit negotiations. By indicating their opposition to a no-deal Brexit and passing a motion through the House of Commons, the European negotiating team have naturally manoeuvred Britain into a corner.

Downer cited ongoing negotiations between Australia and the European Union, and Australia and New Zealand. In both cases Australia has not accepted the binary choices that are initially presented but rather walked away and identified counter proposals.

Be proud of your country

It might be a case of his Australian charm juxtaposing the characteristic British cynicism but Downer didn’t conceal his disappointment at the tone of British politics. Neither did he hide his disdain for the inability of so many of Britain’s elected representatives to engage with an optimistic vision of Britain’s future. While the ‘Punch and Judy’ politics of the Despatch Box can be engaging in the most curious of ways it can so easily spiral into a tornado of negativity.

Ordinary or everyday people?

Downer fears that politics is becoming particularly out-of-touch; there are no longer enough senior politicians who empathise with the public. Discussing how in Australia the reference is now everyday rather than ordinary people (the latter has been interpreted as condescending), there are still politicians – federally and on a state-to-state basis – that can communicate with the electorate.

He claims the fear of being attacked by Fleet Street runs deep in Westminster and drives centrist politicians in Britain away from maintaining strong convictions. Instead, they are drawn into debates on topical issues of the day that have no tangible impact for so many voters – or “punters” as he likes to say. It is the brave representatives that go against the grain that can cut through with the public.

Populism isn’t going away

The longer the traditional caucus of centrist politicians remain in their echo chamber, the greater the forces on the fringes become. In Britain, on the Continent, and in the United States, more radical political parties communicating frank messages are mobilising parts of the electorate that are disenfranchised. It is these potential policymakers that are talking up the possibilities of the next generation rather than highlighting the dangers of our current situation. Downer said we should not expect anything but a significant victory for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in Thursday’s European Parliament elections – a forecast which has since come to fruition.

Art and science

After a life in politics Downer poetically reminded us that the job, as a policymaker, representative and ultimately a public communicator is a fine balance between art and science. For all the quantitative and qualitative analysis, the refining and repeating of individual messages and for all of the precise electoral calculations, our politicians require a certain je ne sais quoi if they are to galvanise the public.

The art of politics remains very much alive. The importance of persuasion and audacity to engage with the thorny issues of the day can bring voters on side. Our guest reminded us that breaching taboo subjects in public can shore up support as a demonstration of your conviction. The art is doing this in a manner that is judicious and with characteristic aplomb.

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