The Downer Family

A Liberal Legacy

Tucked modestly away in the big end of town, the Melbourne Club is a subdued sandstone building, easily overlooked among the skyscrapers of Collins Street. But enter its small foyer, and wealth and power are immediately if discreetly evident in the nineteenth-century art and ornate furnishings. Sober-suited men leave their briefcases and mobile phones with the doorman, for this is a dedicated gentlemen's club. It is also the place where old money, business interests and conservative politics rub shoulders over dinner and drinks - long regarded as the epicentre of the Australian establishment. It is also the place Alexander Downer was summoned to on Thursday evening, 19 May 1994, for one of the most important meetings of his life. The Liberal politician's star was in the ascendancy. In a party racked by internal dissension and adrift after ten years in opposition, he was being considered for the top job. Tony Staley, the party's president, wanted to see him in one of the many private rooms. Although the Melbourne club's influence may have waned since the 1950s, its part in the anointing of Alexander downer as leader of the Liberal Party would add to the public perception of the politician's blueblood heritage.


News of Alexander Downer's tele-a-tete with Staley tipped the balance in a party beset by leadership speculation. Having suffered a resounding defeat at the polls the previous year, the Liberals were looking to replace their current leader, John Hewson, whom many felt had thrown away a sure-fire victory by force-feeding his stringent plans for economic reform to an uneasy electorate. Hewson was well aware that his leadership was being undermined - the question of who would challenge him now appeared to be answered. On hearing of downer's meeting, the beleaguered incumbent called for a party-room ballot the following Monday in which would-be contenders for his job could 'put up or shut up'. Put up they did. Alexander Downer declared his candidacy and received the blessing of the party's royalty, including Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock. Breaking with tradition - for past presidents had made a point of staying out of the political party's brawls  Tony Staley announced it was time for a change.

'I am born of the Liberal Party,' proclaimed Alexander Downer, after the party room duly voted him leader of the Opposition that Monday, 23 May 1994. 'I am a creature of the Liberal Party.' Truer words had never been spoken. Alexander Downer's Liberal pedigree was impeccable. His father and namesake, Sir Alexander Downer, had been a minister in the Menzies government during the halcyon days of the party, and his grandfather, Sir John Downer, a conservative premier of South Australia. Now the third generation was taking the family's political fortunes to new heights. But on becoming opposition leader.

Sir John Downer, a politician in his prime and a product of south Australia's colonial society,
on his appointment to the third Federal convention in Adelaide. (Mortlock Library, state Library of SA)

Alexander Downer's political lineage was quickly overshadowed by his establishment credentials. Then Prime Minister Paul Keating branded his win 'a victory for the Melbourne club', and attacked Alexander downer's membership of the equally exclusive Adelaide Club - women nor Jews. Downer lashed back, labelling the prime minister's fast-money man'. Keating rejoined furiously, "If it's not old money, it's fast, improper.' This heated exchanged marked the beginning of a series of jibes, in which the prime minister would lambast the new Opposition leader as someone who had been 'born with a silver cutlery service in his mouth'. For this was also part of Alexander downer's birthright. Not only was he heir to a political dynasty, but he was equally a scion of the South Australian establishment, linked by birth to three of the state's most illustrious founding families.   

Indeed, in Alexander Downer politics and establishment are inextricably linked. His heritage brings with it both a sense of privilege and a feeling of public duty born out of that privilege. As observers will tell you, it takes more than money to make a family of the establishment in both Australia. Rather, it marks an exclusive set of historic families whose contribution over the generations carries with it 'the assumption that one has a duty to society and continues to have a role in its affairs, and will train one's children to that duty should the need arise'. Accordingly, the guiding principle in the Downer household has always been 'if you are given a lot, a lot is expected of you, and you have to give that back to the community'. As Alexander Downer says of his forebears: 'What was significant about them was that they had this rather traditional and conservative notion of public service. Since I can remember, I suppose, it's been ingrained into me, this notion of service. In the Downer family, this public service ethic has, over three generations, found expression in political leadership and an expectation to achieve in this field. There is an understanding that the Downers have a place at the centre of politics - and it is no coincidence that in this family it is considered quite appropriate to fly the Australian flag in your garden. The result, says Dennis Grant, parliamentary correspondent and long-time observer of Alexander Downer's career, is a rather unusual breed of politician for Australia. 'When you think about the Downer family, they are very European. I don't mean that in any kind of disparaging sense. It's just that the weight of family history is not on most Australian, and I think it is on the Downers. It's almost a sort of antipodean noblesse oblige ... It's fascinating, and it's very rare around here.

But the downer family's dynastic legacy is more than just a curious novelty. Instead, it reflects the development of a unique strand of colonial society and its place in a wider Australian history. The family's dynastic roots lie in the founding principles of south Australia, a colony that, unlike the eastern seaboard states, was established as 'one of the few genuine nineteenth-century utopias'.

The story of South Australia's settlement is marvelous in itself, for it was conceived of by Edward Gibbon Wakefield during a three-year stay in London's Newgate prison. A Quaker who came from a long line of social activists, including Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, Wakefield had abducted a fifteen-year-old heiress from her school in March 1826, and absconded with her to Gretna Green where they were married. It was Wakefield's second such marriage - his first wife had been sixteen when they eloped and had died in childbirth, leaving her husband with a; comfortable income for the remainder of his life. This time, however, despite his bride's compliance, Wakefield was brought to trial and the marriage annulled. It was while serving out his prison sentence for statutory misdemeanour that Wakefield came into contact with convicts who had served time in New south Wales and Van Diemen's Land (as Tasmania was then known).

The wedding of Sir Alexander and Lady Downer. Not unusually for South Australia, their marriage marked the joining
together of two well known establishment families, although her heritage was more illustrious than his. (Lady Mary Downer)

Their recollections gave him a critical insight into colonial emigration to the antipodes; insights upon which he had plenty of time to reflect. He came to the conclusion that the colonies' development was suffering from a chaotic granting of free land, a shortage of labour and a consequent dependence on convicts. The solution lay in a scheme of systematic colonisation where land would be sold and the proceeds applied to the emigration of labourers, preferably young married couples, thereby giving 'maximum population relief to Britain'. Encouraging couples would also address the 'great disproportion between sexes' in the colonies that had arisen through transportation, for as with all prison populations women were vastly underrepresented - in Wakefield's view the 'greatest evil of all'. Wakefield was convinced his scheme would lead to a balanced, fruitful and prosperous colonial society, with the capacity and right to elect representatives to its own legislature, thus transplanting the best of British civilisation from an old to a new country for their mutual benefit.

On his release, Wakefield began promoting his theory by every means at his disposal, writing newspaper articles, pamphlets and books, holding public meetings, lobbying parliamentarians, and lecturing friends and acquaintances. Supported by his first wife's inheritance, he became a colonial propagandist and a very charismatic one. As might be inferred from his private life Wakefield could be extremely persuasive. His ideas soon influenced several regulations for the disposal of crown land in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, including their sale by auction for a minimum price per hectare, with proceeds devoted to an immigration fund. Unimpressed by such a token salute, Wakefield began to plan the systematic colonisation of southern Australia. His scheme found influential backers, notwithstanding the fact that the idea of a colony 'not for paupers or prisoners, but for the enterprising gentle classes with the dignity of self-government' was revolutionary in 1829.

Alexander Downer and his wife Nicky with their children. Like his parents, Alexander has
three daughters and a son - but will any of this fourth generation go into politics? (Nicky Downer)

The proposed colony's founding fathers 'looked on themselves as idealists of every sort, with a belief in human freedoms, social justice and religious tolerance, which they maintained had been the basis of British greatness but which their country seemed to have neglected somewhat. What they aimed at building was a better, more liberal and open Great Britain, a paradise of dissent. In late 1833 the south Australian Association was formed. A year later Wakefield helped draft a bill creating the British province of south Australia and providing for its colonisation and government. As soon as this was passed, he published a manual of advice and information for intending colonists - irrespective of the fact that he himself had never visited the continent. (By the following year, however, his attention had drifted to other colonies, including Canada and most notably New Zealand, where he eventually emigrated, living out his final years in relative obscurity.)

In 1836 the first boatload of settlers arrived in South Australia - fifteen ships would sail that year. Wakefield's proselytising had fallen on receptive ears, and the colony became the destination of choice for Britain's middle classes, whose hopes of upward mobility at home had been dashed by their lack of birthright, wealth or property. They dreamed of 'a balanced society. Not a utopian equal society but a utopian unequal society, in which a measured number of artisans and farmers, the lower casts of society, would be represented together with the rich and the affluent and the clever in a very city-planned and rural-planned environment.' It was an inspirational vision of social order and harmony 'in which the rich had their special place and the poor knew their place'. This vision was ingrained in the capital city, Adelaide, which had been laid out weeks before the first immigrants stepped ashore. In order to avoid the industrial slums that were springing up rapidly in British cities, Adelaide's residential districts were divided into large blocks of land surrounded by smaller lots - ensuring that rich and poor would always rub shoulders. The result was often a wealthy family estate surrounded by the homes of its workers. Even today Adelaide strikes the visitor as a vision of the ideal pre-lined streets.

The first colonists, we are told, stepped ashore with enthusiasm, certitude and a sense of self-importance bolstered by a shared understanding of their historic significance. After all, as family historian Fayette Gosse reminds us, this was 'the first attempt since the days of ancient Greeks at organised colonisation on scientific principles ... Hope and zest abounded, along with rigid respectability, to produce a different kind of Australian town from those fabricated over the miseries and cynicism of their penal colony origins, like Sydney and Hobart.' By idealism soon ran aground on the grim reality of life in a far-flung colonial outpost. Being 'apostles of a new Enlightenment' was no defence against drought, mismanagement, overpopulation and a lack of resources. The South Australian company soon ran out of money, but the British government was indifferent, believing that the new colony should be self-funding. Despite these hardships, the land proved kind, and good grazing pastures were discovered 300 kilometres south-east of Adelaide. As a result, the colony's earliest pastoral enterprises flourished and with them the city of Adelaide. By the 1860s the colony's immigrants had created a model society based on English ideals, complete with its own gentry.

Fewer than a hundred families, united by prosperity and marriage, would dominate South Australia for nearly a century. Their fortunes would be based on large property holdings, but they would equally play a pre-eminent role in politics, finance and industry - setting the standard for the colony and achieving recognition as leaders within their community. Unlike the penal colonies, which could look to their imperial masters in Britain for support, South Australia relied on its private individuals for political and economic development. The colony's future thus depended on their sense of social obligation. Even today its founding families are household names whose activities are regularly reported on by the local media. People are still identified by their family connections, as are suburbs, electorates and streets. Indeed, the Adelaide gentry, as these families came to be regarded, would leave an enduring mark on the city through their contributions to public architecture and their large and gracious homes.   

They were distinguished not just by wealth, as not every wealthy family became a member of the establishment, but by lifestyle. They lived as they believed aristocrats lived in England, and it was once again a dreamed-about affluence,' observes historian John Hepworth. 'Theirs was a lifestyle of recreation, with lots of parties and tennis, and even croquet, and large houses in which there could be garden parties. There were always a number of residences: a town house, which was often very grand, but also a country estate in the nearby hills where one could escape the heat of summer.' But for all their aristocratic airs, the South Australian gentry had also inherited the colony's reformist beliefs. These were middle-class families made good, and they held fast to a shining ideal of British justice, tolerance and liberty. 'The South Australian establishment has educational overtones, leadership overtones, political overtones, which simple wealth in the eastern states doesn't necessarily denote. It's a package deal, and you've got to join the whole thing. South Australia has never completely lost its sense of social responsibility and reformist philosophy.'

It is from this potent and contradictory mixture of progressive traditionalism that the Downer dynasty arose. Henry Downer, Alexander's great-grandfather, was one of the colony's earliest arrivals - an English tailor who emigrated to South Australia in 1838. From such solid but (in South Australia at least) unremarkable tradesman origins, his three sons would establish themselves among the upper echelons of Adelaide society. All three would enter the legal profession and join the bar; two would later become politicians while the other, George, would establish the family's fortunes as a noted pastoralist. (A bachelor, his wealth eventually passed to Alexander Downer's branch of the family, further consolidating its prominent place in the colony.) John Downer, the youngest, began his rise through the ranks while still a schoolboy, winning a scholarship to St Peter's college, the pre-eminent school of the colony, founded by a number of prominent citizens in 1847, four years after his birth.


Sir Alexander, Lady Mary Downer and family on the steps of Arbury Park, the estate Sir Alexander built in the Adelaide Hills.
This family photograph marks Sir Alexander's appointment as Minister for Immigration in the Menzies cabinet. From left to right:
Alexander junior, Una, Angela and Stella. (Lady Mary Downer)

John 'was probably the most brilliant schoolboy of his time' and on completing his education became one of Adelaide's leading barristers. He soon established himself as a force in South Australian society and politics. In 1878, at the age of thirty-five, he was made a QC, and in that same year was elected to the House of Assembly. Three years later he was appointed attorney-general and in 1885, when he was forty-three assumed leadership of the government. He held the position of premier twice, and led the colony's conservative forces in parliament for twenty years, before joining the new federal parliament in 1901 as a senator. But, according to historians and family alike, 'perhaps the greatest contribution he made was as one of the founding fathers of the constitution'. A passionate federalist, Sir John represented South Australia at the 1891, 1893 and 1897-98 federal conventions.

Indeed, much of the Australian constitution was penned at Sir John's town house, conveniently located a short stroll from the South Australian parliament, where the 1897 convention was held. Today this stately terrace, which still looks out over parklands and the Torrens River towards the city, is home to Adelaide University's leading residential college, St Mark's. Its current principal is former Labor premier and St Peter's old boy John Bannon, a keen student of Federation and, consequently, a leading authority on Sir John's career. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, John Bannon now presides over formal dinners in what was once Sir John's second floor ballroom. He considers the room 'a sacred site of Federation' for it was here that the constitution of Australia was drafted in 1897. Sir John served on the drafting committee with future prime minister Sir Edmund Barton, who stayed with him during this time. A third member of the committee, Richard O'Connor, the solicitor-general of New south Wales, resided just down the road. The three men had been elected by the convention to write a draft for the constitution that would then be printed and considered by the other delegates. 'At the end of each day there was a lot of work to be done, so the committee would walk back to Sir John's residence, settle down over the port and cigars, and work on into the night. This is the place where the i's were dotted and the t's crossed.'

One of the few, and earliest, remaining photographs of Sir John is from this time. A copy hangs in Alexander downer's parliamentary office behind his desk, and another in his mother's living room. The photograph shows a man in his prime, a robust, imposing figure with a decidedly determined, if not pugnacious, air. It supports the description bestowed on him by friend and fellow politician Alfred Deakin , as 'bull-headed, and rather thick-necked ... with the dogged set of the mouth of a prize fighter' and 'smallish eyes'. Cartoons and sketches of the day, however, tended to emphasise different qualities. They portray Sir John as a jaunty figure, dressed to the nines and sporting a top hat when out of door. Irrespective of setting, he is invariably smoking a cigar. Although not born to it, Sir John was a man fond of good living, with a reputation for enjoying fine wines and even finer cigars. Despite his professional commitments, he maintained the leisurely lifestyle of the south Australian gentry. In addition to his grand town house, he had (like others of his class) a summer residence, Glenalta, in the Adelaide Hills. Here Sir John's family would escape the heat of the plains from December to April, in a style a little reminiscent of the Indian hill stations of the British Raj. Although it had originally been a cottage, Sir John built Glenalta into a large and comfortable country estate, complete with stables, a well-stocked library and a large and equally well-endowed wine cellar. These trappings did not go unnoticed or uncommented upon.

'The satirical newspapers certainly gave him a fairly hard time, casting him as the ultimate aristocrat, the person of imperial pretentions in a small colonial pond. They had great sport of it,' concedes John Bannon. 'Sir John was a currency lad, but of the south Australian variety. Conservative, Anglican in religion, somebody who believed very much in pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps and establishing oneself, and yet a great imperialist - someone who looked to England for a lot of ideas, styles, stimulation.' But Sir John combined his imperialism with a sturdy nationalism. In the lead-up to nationhood, he championed the constitutional need for Australia to manage its own judicial affairs, with final authority resting in its own High Court. When others argued that the idea behind Federation was not to 'cut the painter' with Great Britain, he replied: 'We have come to the conclusion that we may cease to be provincial and form the foundation of a nation. We do not propose in any way to separate from the British Crown; in fact we look to it with reverence. We consider ourselves the same people. But the very essence of the difference is that we think we can make laws which will suffice us; in other words, to put it colloquially, we can  manage our own affairs.' It was time, he insisted, to 'get out of swaddling clothes'.  

It is worth remembering that at the time of Federation, the idea of granting independence to a British colony was a relatively recent one. But Sir John had always exhibited rather progressive tendencies. As attorney-general, he had changed the law to allow those charged with a crime to give evidence in court. He had also furthered women's rights, creating legislation that protected the property rights of married women. He also advocated women's suffrage - a popular issue in a colony that uniquely in Australia had drawn large number of women settlers. Most unusually for his day, Sir John did not believe the Immigration Restriction act deserved a high priority in the affairs of the new nation and as a federal senator he spoke out against 'this general running amok with the name of white Australia'. Sir John's electorate was the Barossa Valley - the winemaking region of South Australia that had benefited so greatly from its German Lutheran immigrants. He was a popular representative among this community and never suffered an electoral defeat at its hands. For some, a closer look at Sir John's political reforms reveals steadfastly conservative motives. His support for women's rights - particularly to property - has been interpreted by some as a way of bolstering his conservative constituency. (While some believed that women represented a radical new voice in politics, an equal number believed that women, with their concerns for home and hearth, brought a civilising but innately traditional influence to bear on society.) Likewise, Sir John's motivation in supporting Federation has been construed by some as a means of undermining the advances made by the emerging labour movement in individual colonies. John Bannon disagrees with this reading. In his view, Sir John saw Federation as an opportunity to advance the interests of smaller states - an outlook shared by both sides of south Australian politics. 

Indeed, Sir John clearly believed his birthplace to be ahead of its colonial parent when it came to political discourse. He shoed the courage of these convictions at an imperial conference in London in 1887, which he attended as premier despite a looming election. Notes John Bannon rather wryly: 'It's said that downer went to the imperial conference to make a name for himself, armed with a sheaf of colonial reforms to urge onto the backward British parliament, and this made him cut quite a figure. The cartoonists made great fun of him, swanning around the salons of London, smoking his inevitable cigar, and telling them how advanced the colonies were. The problem was that while he was away an election was taking place in South Australia, and he chose not to return. Some claim this was the passion for his reforms. Others less kindly suggest that his reason for dallying was his hope that he'd be granted a knighthood and that back home, if he could be seen as such an international statesman, his election would be guaranteed. Well, he got his knighthood, but unfortunately not his election.'

Australia - Dynasties - The Downer Family - Part 2

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