The Strategist Six: Alexander Downer
20 May 2019|

Welcome to ‘The Strategist Six’, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

1. What does Brexit mean for Britain’s place in the world?

I don’t think it will make much difference. There’s a great deal of emotional rhetoric attached to the debate on Brexit, which I can understand because the UK has been in the evolving European Union for over 40 years. In reality, though, the UK derives its power not from the EU but from the size of its economy, its soft power—which is huge through everything from the arts to the media to the dominance of the English language—and its historical links to the Commonwealth.

The UK is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it’s the second largest aid donor in the world and it has a very large defence force. So the UK already has a prominent place in world affairs, and its membership of the EU doesn’t count for a huge amount because the EU itself seldom has a strong position on foreign policy—for 28 different countries with 28 different national interests to stitch together a common position is to stitch together the lowest common denominator.

The other thing is, from an Australian perspective, we don’t view the UK through the lens of the EU. So I don’t think Brexit will make a huge difference one way or the other.

2. Earlier this year president of the European Council Donald Tusk offered a searing (albeit clunky) criticism of those in Britain who promoted Brexit without ‘a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely’. Given the trouble that MPs have had in agreeing on a way forward, does he have a point?

I don’t think he should have said that at all—I think that plays into the hands of the Brexiteers and that’s poor politics. How to understand the situation is to look at the parties. The Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats don’t accept the result of the referendum and want to reverse it. The Labour Party seeks to bring down the government and force a general election, as oppositions are wont to do, though their Brexit position isn’t entirely clear. Most in the Conservative Party support Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, but the ones who don’t are the members of the European Research Group or the Democratic Unionist Party—they are more absolutists.

So the question now is whether the ERG and the DUP decide that maybe the withdrawal agreement is the best of a bad lot, or maybe they decide to roll the dice and see what happens next. That will be either (a) the UK does the worst imaginable thing and withdraws from the EU’s political structures while remaining in its economic structures, (b) they just don’t leave the EU, or (c) they call another referendum, which would be so reckless. The idea that you have a referendum and lose it and then say, ‘Let’s have another’—it’s little short of outrageous. If they hold a second referendum and people vote ‘Remain’, which is no sure thing, all of the Brexiteers will lobby for yet another referendum—a neverendum!

3. Last year you finished up your four-year stint as Australia’s high commissioner to the UK. How did the UK–Australia relationship evolve over that time and what are you most proud of?

There were two things. The first feature is that we were able to entice the conservative Cameron government into showing a lot of interest in Australia—we cultivated a good environment for strengthening the relationship. The second was the Brexit referendum. The Australian government favoured Remain—and certainly the polls showed Remain would win—but when the referendum went the other way, Malcolm Turnbull rang me and said, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ I said, ‘I think you should ring the prime minister and say we’re up for a free trade agreement.’ He did that, so we were the first country that came out in support of a free trade agreement with the UK, which was deeply appreciated by the May government.

One of the things which is really positive is that, out of a much better overall relationship and in an environment where the British government has been extremely warm, we managed to persuade them to allow Australians to use their e-passport system, instead of having to queue for hours on arrival. That’s a really good thing to the average Australian. I also think our ministers—Julie Bishop, Marise Payne, Christopher Pyne and so on—did a really good job in making AUKMIN [the annual meeting between Australian and UK defence and foreign affairs ministers] more effective. During my time as high commissioner we started to do a lot more with the Brits and I think that’s in our interest.

4. What does Britain see when it looks at Australia?

They love Australia; it’s the country they most like in the world. I’ve often pointed this out to people to their surprise: there are more British-born people living in Australia than in any other country in the world (other than Britain, naturally). In fact, there are more British-born people living in Australia than living in the whole of the EU 27.

The Brits see Australia as completely reliable, an economic miracle, a country that’s very well run, with friendly, open people who are on the same side and page as they are. I would say, having been the foreign minister for a very long time and then having been the high commissioner here, there isn’t a country in the world with which we have more common cause than the UK. That even includes New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia are two countries separated only by distance.

5. Do you think a ‘global Britain’ has much appetite for being more engaged—that is, showing up, spending up—in the Indo-Pacific?

The UK is most certainly up for much heavier engagement with Asia, and Australia has been encouraging that. The UK last year decided to open three new missions in the South Pacific. We went to see them on many occasions and asked them to do more in the Pacific, where they have quite a lot of soft power by virtue of their history. They are respected in the Pacific in a way that many other countries aren’t even thought of. The Brits have shown an interest in rounding up their engagement in the Pacific and it is certainly in Australia’s interest that they do so.

As for Asia, they have very strong links with Japan—mainly economic, but also very good political links—and the Japanese are quite focused on the British relationship. The British claim that they’re in a ‘golden era’ in their relationship with China, but I think the gold may now be quite tarnished as some interesting and difficult issues have come up. But nevertheless they are pretty focused on those relationships. Australia has worked on getting them more involved with Indonesia as well.

6. John Howard was the last Australian prime minister to serve a full term in government (2004–2007). Do you think the prime ministerial churn has undermined our relationships and standing around the world?

The great advantage of having continuity in those so-called great offices of state—the prime minister, the treasurer, the foreign minister—is the personal connections that they can build over the years. John Howard was a great friend of George W. Bush, had a good relationship with Jiang Zemin, and got along really well with Junichiro Koizumi, because they saw each other often. One of the most difficult tasks that we faced was getting into the East Asia Summit. When ASEAN joined China in opposing our membership bid, we were able to use our personal relationships with Indonesia and Japan to help us get in, which was a huge breakthrough for Australian foreign policy. So longevity in office helps you do that sort of thing.

The problem with the churn of prime ministers in Australia is that they haven’t been able to build much of a profile in the world or make much of an impact because they haven’t been around long enough. How can our prime minister build personal relationships through the Indo-Pacific, and with the Americans, the British and other key leaders around the world, if the officeholder keeps changing? I think it’s been a huge mistake for Labor and the Liberal Party to keep changing their prime ministers, but it reflects their priorities, which are opinion polls and the media. Instead of being focused on trying to achieve particular policy goals, they’re distracted trying to get good media coverage and fretting about the latest Newspoll.