CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Alexander Downer - a field-marshal's baton in his knapsack?
, June 4, 2005
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer wants to prove that his conservative credentials are superior to those of Liberal leadership aspirant, Peter Costello.Alexander Downer's recent Earle Page lecture at the University of New England created a huge furore in political circles, and gnashing of teeth inside the ALP.
The Foreign Minister's speech was deliberately provocative and in parts mischievous, questioning the early political judgment and character of Labor's most revered leader, John Curtin, while ignoring completely similar lapses and question marks about Sir Robert Menzies early political career.
It was also unashamedly partisan, suggesting that only one side of politics (the Liberal-National Coalition) was seriously prepared to sacrifice Australian lives in the fight against world tyranny, and that, by contrast, the Labor Party was guilty of timidity and even complicity with undemocratic regimes.
The Foreign Minister accused wartime leader Curtin of being a closet pacifist who capitulated to Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini to placate sections of his party; Arthur Calwell of being an isolationist; and Gough Whitlam of doing a "shameless sell-out'' to the Soviet Union.
Ex-leader Mark Latham and present leader Kim Beazley were not much better on Iraq, he said, and repeated his previous claim that Labor was guilty of creating the policy of "Little Australia''.
"Only the Coalition is unequivocally committed to supporting the global struggle for freedom,'' Mr Downer charged, knowing the reaction of his political opponents.
Mr Downer's speech was clearly political and not the work of a dispassionate historian; but it was also assiduously researched, well-crafted and designed as a circuit-breaker to permit for the first time a more critical view of Curtin.
Though not mentioned in the speech at a personal level Mr Downer (rightly or wrongly) blames in part Curtin for his father's incarceration in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
But it is a measure of the shallowness of the Australian political scene that, rather than proper debate, it provoked insults from the Labor Party.
Labor's foreign spokesman Kevin Rudd dismissed it as "Mr Downer must have been playing battleships in his bathtub''.
Putting aside the history debate, the politics behind the Earle Page lecture is equally intriguing.
The political message behind the speech is that, whatever MPs may think about Peter Costello's conservative bona fides, there should be now no doubt at all about Downer's own conservative credentials.
Mr Downer's unstated message is that he, unlike Costello, is solid, has deep conservative roots, and is prepared to take on Labor on its own turf, particularly on the question of history and the culture wars.
Most importantly, he is declaring his availability for the top job.
Peter Costello has met another dead-end in his political ambitions, and there is strong suspicion that he will never challenge John Howard for the Lodge.
If Mr Howard decides to contest another election, as many will urge him to do, the next leadership of the party may not fall automatically to Costello.
Tony Abbott's political star has waned over recent months.
Whether or not it was done deliberately, Mr Costello's nobbling of Abbott's Medicare Safety Net did his Cabinet colleague considerable political damage.
Mr Abbott's pre-election "rock-solid, ironclad'' guarantee on the Safety Net was destroyed by Mr Costello.
Downer's none-too-subtle message is that, if Costello himself fails to reach the finishing post, and if Abbott's political credibility is shot, then the party will have to turn to other possibilities.