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17th August 2023

Diary: Longest-serving foreign secretary of Australia Alexander Downer on Rishi Sunak, Gary Lineker and the hilarity of George W. Bush

Alexander Downer


Illegal immigration is an important issue for me. I think there’s a lot of misreporting about Rwanda, and it’s outrageous. How would I describe Kigali, the capital? It’s very tidy – extraordinarily clean city. It has high rates of economic growth, and gives the impression of being a well-run country. In my life, as the longest-serving foreign secretary of Australia, I must have been to over a 100 countries.


I also like to point out that these asylum seekers are also coming from a country called France, so there’s a choice of France or Rwanda. That’s not inhumane. Gary Lineker is a football ex-player and pundit. I don’t regard him as an expert on immigration issues; he’s reading about people scoring goals and being offside. Of course, it would be inhumane if the policy were to send genuine refugees back to their country, but that’s not the policy. The reality is that people smugglers have found a way to make huge amounts of money, and it’s a racket. It’s also hugely expensive for the government to pick these people up, process and house them.


Difficult interviews never bothered me. The media’s job is to hold you to account. If you’re powerful and decided on a particular path, you’ve got to be prepared to defend it. The Andrew Neil Show wasn’t a problem for me. I did an interview with Kay Burley on Sky, and she was incredibly against the government’s policy, but that was okay. If you’re so worried about being attacked by journalists, why not put them in charge of the country and see how it goes? Usually, whatever you do is sub-optimal.


I remember the day I was sworn in in Australia by the Governor-General as a Cabinet Minister. One of my colleagues who’d previously been premier of New South Wales, he was being sworn in as finance minister, and I remember him turning him to me: “This is the best day you’ll have as a minister. I said:  Why’s that? And he said because nobody I left politics in 2008, and still on social media I get attacked for things we did in government and that’s fine.


Over the years, I’ve met many world leaders. The more conviction they have the better. When John Howard was Prime Minister, we were subject to endless attacks. We used to describe ourselves as the Howard Fascist Dictatorship because they hated us so much. But we knew what we were doing, and felt that what we were doing was for the best. It hurts more when you’re attacked for a slip of the tongue or a gaffe. If you want to be popular, it’s not the job for you. You become famous in your country but at the same time for many people become infamous.

wenty years on from Iraq, I wonder whether we were right, and I think we were. We didn’t make a huge contribution to the invasion of Iraq, but getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing. However, the Americans handled the post-invasion incredibly badly. We argued with the Americans about that, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if we’d refused to participate. You can’t ask the Americans to underwrite the security of the Indo-Pacific region at huge expense to the American taxpayer, and be a fairweather ally.


Both Blair and Bush were leaders of conviction. You’d have to say you were impressed by the forcefulness of each. They’re different sorts of people – both very personable. Bush was very funny, full of jokes. The funniest moment relates to my wife, Nicky. It was September 2007, were at the Australian PM’s Sydney residence and at this time he was incredibly unpopular worldwide. Condi Rice was there, and she said to my wife: “Would you like to meet the President?” My wife said: “He’s a bit out of my league. Condi insisted and I don’t know what came over my wife nut my wife said: “Mr. President, what’s it like being the most popular person in the world.” I’m Australia’s leading diplomat and he just laughed and said: “That’s politics. You have to do what you think I’d right. She spoke to him for 15 minutes and came away thinking he was delightful, much underrated by people. He made politically incorrect jokes and at one which I won’t repeat I said: “You mustn’t say that publicly. “No,” he said. “I never would.”



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