Besides the now-legendary racism of our political cartoonists, Australia’s image in the eyes of the world is still largely formed by that episode of The Simpsons in which our country’s leader is a drunken man named Andy, floating naked in an inner tube, who tries to kick Bart in the ass.
This is entirely accurate. Unlike countries that take a more reverent view of politicians, Australia is a place where prime ministers get called “wanker” by someone speeding past in their car, or are ignored when they try to buy a FitBit in a suburban electronics store.
In recent months, one such homegrown politician, the former diplomat and Liberal Party leader Alexander Downer, has reached international fame and become an object of suspicion among Republicans and pro-Trump conspiracy theorists. It was to Downer in May 2016, over gin and tonics in a London bar, that then-Trump advisor George Papadopoulos boasted of having secured “political dirt” on Hillary Clinton from Russian government agents. Downer reported the conversation to American and Australian intelligence agencies, which prompted the FBI to start investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
After being found guilty of lying to the FBI about his contact with the Russians, Papadopoulos accused Downer of being a sinister foreign operative, directed by forces unknown to sabotage the Trump campaign. California Rep. Devin Nunes and North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, both Republicans, have claimed he “has ties to the Clintons,” because he signed off on a $25 million donation the Australian government gave to the Clinton Foundation in 2006 to fight HIV/AIDS in the Pacific.
On paper, Alexander Downer is a plausible candidate to kick off the largest international espionage scandal since the Cold War.
“The notion that Downer randomly reached out to me just to have a gin and tonic is laughable,” Papadopoulos tweeted earlier this month. “Some organization or entity sent him to meet me. For the sake of our republic and the integrity of this investigation, I think it's time Downer is exposed as [man behind the now-infamous piss tape dossier] Christoper [sic] Steele.”
If you aren’t familiar with Australia, the idea of Downer as a shadowy, gin-sipping international man of mystery is understandable. He’s the country’s longest-serving foreign minister and has filled impressive-sounding diplomatic postings around the world. He was leader of the center-right Liberal Party in the mid-1990s, and was a contender to become prime minister. On paper, Downer is a plausible candidate to kick off the largest international espionage scandal since the Cold War.
Or he would be, if he weren’t also Alexander Downer. All you will ever need to know about Downer is that even a place like Australia considers him a national joke.
Most Australians picture Downer with one leg in fishnet stockings and a leopard-print pump, grinning halfheartedly into the camera like he knows things are about to go badly wrong. This is an image entirely of his own making. Downer had been asked to pose for a charity fundraiser in which people had to match famous faces with pictures of their shoes. The fishnets were his idea. For the rest of his political career, cartoonists drew Downer as a snotty private schoolboy with an overpowering S&M fetish. There’s even a song about it.
Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat at the center of this new Papadopoulos story, is from my home city, and here’s the best photo of him in his lesser political years (he went on to become Australian foreign minister) pic.twitter.com/e8gJoQDPnr— Tom Gara (@tomgara) December 31, 2017
The gag stuck because Downer was, and remains, the perfect mark. Haughty and accident-prone, Downer is the third-generation son of a conservative political dynasty that’s as close to old money as Australia gets. His great nemesis in the 1990s, Prime Minister Paul Keating, described him as “the idiot son of the aristocracy, born not with a silver spoon but the entire cutlery service in his mouth.”
Downer has always bridled at the suggestion that he comes from a line of snobs. “Our family have been nation builders. We helped make this country great,” he said in a recent TV interview. “Nation building is in our blood.”
This is true, in the sense that Australia was “built” by slaughtering and dispossessing the people who were here first. Alexander’s grandfather, Sir John Downer, ignored dozens of massacres of Aboriginal people while serving as the attorney general and later premier of South Australia in the 1880s.
Downer combined this pedigree and his own right-wing nastiness with an unerring ability to screw up everything he touched. Promoting the Liberal slogan “The Things That Matter” in a speech in 1994, Downer joked that the party’s domestic violence policy should be named “The Things That Batter.” Eight months after electing him leader, the party sacked him.
When the Liberals won government in 1996, Downer was made foreign minister. Besides championing the Iraq War, turning away a boatload of asylum seekers to win an election, and pioneering Australia’s Trumplike practice of sending refugees to detention centers on tiny Pacific islands, the high point of Downer’s service were the multiple times he sang karaoke before rooms of politely baffled dignitaries. On one of these occasions, Downer pretended to grope Madeleine Albright while singing a rewritten version of “Mambo No. 5” that included the lyrics “a little bit of Madeleine in my hand”.
After leaving politics in 2008 when the Liberals were voted out, Downer was appointed chief United Nations envoy to Cyprus. Shockingly, resolving that decades-old geopolitical crisis proved beyond his abilities. As part of Australia’s rich political tradition of getting incompetent people out of the way by giving them cushy, highly paid jobs overseas, he then filled his father Alick’s shoes as high commissioner to the United Kingdom. That gig involved spending $107,000 on “official” dinners with old colleagues, holding model airplanes, and meeting 10 Downing Street’s official cat.
In June of this year, Downer tried to extend the family dynasty by backing his daughter, Georgina, in a special election for his old parliamentary seat — a wealthy, white-bread district appropriately named Mayo. Partly because Mayo’s demographics had changed, partly because Georgina hadn’t lived in the area for 20 years, and partly because she believes in abolishing the minimum wage, she did not win.
The night before Georgina’s defeat, Downer got in a Facebook comments war with people planning to vote for her main opponent. “We are Adelaide Hills people and been in politics here for decades and through multiple elections never come across such abuse,” Downer wrote. “You must all be new arrivals.”
This is all to say it would be weirdly fitting if Downer, completely by accident, actually brings down the Trump administration. Maybe, if we’re lucky, when a rolling catastrophe of a government meets a rolling catastrophe of a person, they cancel each other out.