The Downer Family - Part 2
A Liberal Legacy
Sir John returned to Adelaide to discover that, although he still held his parliamentary seat, his fellow conservatives had been routed at the polls and the choice of premier had fallen to the state's more radical factions. Unlike other politicians more concerned with their domestic standing, Sir John had failed to ensure that his opponents travelled to London with him, nor had he kept his visit brief. Henceforth his role in local politics would be consigned to leadership of the Opposition. Says his grandson more than a century later: 'He was a man of strong convictions but not a man of great ambitions. He wasn't one of those people who foamed at the mouth to succeed. I think he was probably fairly laid back and a bit of a bon vivant and, if he lost the premiership as he did, I don't think it would have thrown him into a state of despair. There's probably a bit of continuity there in our family, I think. When things have gone wrong for us in politics - as happens from time to time - it's a pity, but we just shake it off and wait till the wheel turns.
This apparent nonchalance, however, would result in Sir John's once great disappointment in political life when, contrary to expectation, he was not elected to Australia's High Court, the institution he had worked so hard to establish. Despite his reputation as one of the great constitutional lawyers of the day, and the support of then Prime Minister Sir Edmund Barton, 'his appointment was opposed in cabinet by certain members who disapproved of what they considered were his rather self-indulgent habits'. This rather euphemistic explanation refers apparently to sir John's continuing fondness for cigars and wine. Most of all, he was perceived again, in the words of Sir Alfred Deakin, to have 'an indolence about him'. This indolence, rather than a lack of talent or skill, would prove Sir John's downfall in the eyes of Deakin and politicians since. 'He wasn't serious enough in that hungry ambitious sense and that probably meant he waited for the call to the High Court rather than actually getting out and furiously lobbying and calling in all the chips from his old friends and associates, and that was probably his undoing.
But this insouciance may have been little more than skin deep, for Sir John also had the reputation of a canny politician who, in an era of shifting alliances, displayed a pragmatic flexibility and who was prepared to subjugate ideals to the necessity of political success, deal-making and coalition-building. Most notably, Sir John would renege on his long commitment to women's suffrage when, in 1894, he refused to lend his support to legislation devised by his arch-rival, Charles Kingston. To the astonishment of the suffragettes present, Sir John was one of a handful of dissenting politicians in the parliament, ostensibly claiming that while he supported votes for women, he could not support the right of women to stand for parliament, ostensibly claiming that while he supported votes for women, he could not support the right of women to stand for parliament. Many believe, however, that he simply could not stomach such a success going to his political nemesis. although the bill was subsequently passed by a large majority, Sir John, if such eyewitnesses are to be believed, could be pugnacious to the end. He was also a good debater - the best in the south Australian parliament said one colleague of his early days - and the Adelaide Observer believed that as premier he had nominated the House in the manner of 'a second Bismarck, with a too yielding Reichstag'. Similarly, a cartoon of the day, depicting the 'political schoolyard', shows him punching his Labor opposition with all the relish of an overgrown schoolboy. None of this suggests a politician lacking an ambition.
Most commentators today suggest that Sir John's indolence may have been something of a smokescreen. Observes John Hepworth: 'There was a leisureliness that the upper classes, particularly in South Australia, cultivated. even when you were busy, you shouldn't look busy. You should look as if you have time to read and time for tea, and time for talk - as indeed they did. Sir John Downer probably cultivated it to some extreme, but he wasn't the only one. And I tend to resist rather the accusation of indolence.' John Bannon, speaking from his own experience as a south Australian politician, agrees. 'Perhaps it's a fact that the manner of someone who is an aristocrat - or aspiring to be one - also suggests a certain type of amateurism, in which to seem really to try and be overly ambitious is just very bad form. In politics that can often work to one's advantage, but it can also look as if you're not committed or dedicated enough, with the result that you may be seen as being a bit of a dilettante. But it's more a matter of style, I think. I know a lot of aristocratic amateurs who are as tough and as difficult as those who would see it as their profession.'
Sir John's leisurely aura was a smokescreen in another regard. He had never been among south Australia's wealthiest citizens and had always relied upon work at the Bar to earn a living. (Unlike his brother George who would leave an estate of 1400,000 pounds - significant wealth at the turn of the century - Sir John's estate at probate was valued at little over 14,000 pounds.) Serving in the federal parliament (then in Melbourne) thus put some strain on the purse strings, and Sir John would retire from the Senate in 1903, two years after he had joined. Had he enjoyed greater opportunities to influence events in federal parliament, he may have been temped to stay, but he retired from the Senate feeling his time there had been something of a waste. Sir John, however, continued to play a prominent part in local affairs, sitting in South Australia's Legislative Council until his death in 1915. A photograph taken towards the end of his life shows him seated in a cane chair on the lawn, while behind him hovers a young woman with a parasol. It is a characteristically colonial tableau of the elderly statesman at his leisure. The young woman is Una Stella Russell, whom Sir John married when he was fifty-six. She was his second wife and more than twenty years his junior. His first wife, Elizabeth, had died, leaving Sir John with two sons. Frederick, the eldest, would continue his father's interest in law but would become a businessman and community leader, rather than a politician. Una Stella also provided Sir John with a son, and it was she, far more than the patriarch himself, who would pass on the Downer political legacy to the next generation.
As with many of his contemporaries, the Canberra suburb of Downer is so named in recognition of Sir John's contribution to Australia's nationhood. Unlike the suburbs of Barton and Deakin, however, Downer is not among Canberra's inner dress-circle districts. Instead, it is a rather flat, unprepossessing suburb on the outskirts of the city which, to the unholy amusement of those in the know, has been divided into 'upper' and 'lower' Downer. However, Sir john Downer stands alone in being the only politician to have a fountain dedicated to his memory in the nation's capital. Commissioned by his son, Sir Alexander Downer, while a federal minister, this fountain occupies pride of place in Canberra's main commercial district. A neo-classical sculpture at its centre shows a young boy sitting on his father's lap, his arms outstretched reaching for the chalice held above his head. It expresses the yearning of a man for a parent he new knew, to get her with an understanding of the goal he is compelled to seek.
The only child of Sir John's marriage to Una Stella Russell, Sir Alexander Downer was five years old when his father died. But in this instance death did not diminish the patriarch's charisma. Left with just 'a fragment of memory', Sir John 's son grew up with a strong sense of his father's political achievements, and a determination o follow in his footsteps. This pride, says Sir Alexander's eldest daughter today, 'must have been inculcated by his mother. I think my father put his own father on a pedestal increased by my grandmother's great love and admiration for her husband. She was a great influence and I think she probably wanted my father to go into politics as well. The daughter of a Queensland pastoral family that also produced conservative politicians, Una Stella was a gifted amateur painter, with strong artistic and social sensibilities. She was an involved and adoring mother, and Sir Alexander in turn would prove a devoted son, living with and caring for his mother until her death. he also named two of his three daughters after her, calling his eldest Stella and his youngest Una as well as building a private chapel to her memory. (Una Stella's ashes were interred, along with their predecessor's and her late husband's, in the Downer family plot in North Adelaide, where a large marble edifice commemorates this and subsequent generations - a monument that has been tended and restored by Sir Alexander's widow, Mary.)
Guided by his mother, Sir Alexander came of age with 'a sense of family tradition that it was a good thing for the Downer family to produce politicians'. (Adds his son a generation later, with all the good humour of a politician in a relatively safe set, 'I think there would be millions of people who'd disagree with that!') Sir Alexander also grew up immersed in the ideals of the Empire. He was educated with other sons of the Australian establishment at Geelong Grammar, one of the country's most prestigious private schools - a thoroughly imbued with the values of God, king and country as St Peter's and, if anything, regarded by south Australians as a step up the social ladder - followed by university in England where, like his father before him, he read law at Oxford. As with his father, this education and training would instill an unswerving loyalty to his imperial heritage. 'All my life, from my early schooldays, I have believed in what we used to call the empire, later the British commonwealth, above all in preserving Australian-British links,' he later noted solemnly in his memoirs. Sir John's early death appears to have whetted his son's appetite not just for politics but for a connection with the past. And, as seems commonly the case, it would be this second generation that sought to consolidate not just the family's achievements but its reputation among future generations. Sir Alexander would make it his task to write down what he knew of the family history - not for publication but of his own children and grandchildren. 'My father had a strong sense of history and often complained that his father had left so little in the way of personal records,' reflects his son Alexander Downer today; a further indication that it was Una Stella, rather than Sir John himself, who felt the dynastic imperative most strongly.
It was perhaps to ameliorate his sense of lost heritage that Sir Alexander would design a family seat for himself in the Adelaide Hills while still a university undergraduate. (His father's country estate, Glenalta, had gone to his elder half-brother. It would eventually pass, through marriage, to another old Adelaide family, the Rymills, before being sold.) Sir Alexander clearly intended his new home to take its place among older, more established estates in the belief he was 'planting a tradition and a heritage' for subsequent generations. Begun during the Depression and completed in 1936, "Arbury Park was built to resemble a large Georgian country house. It was set on more than 40 hectares of garden and farmland, complete with deer park and gatehouse. Perched on its own little hill, its stone porticos looked out over landscaped gardens stepping down to a large stone fountain. Even Sir Alexander's own relatives looked somewhat askance at a young unmarried man creating such an estate for himself. 'His aunts thought it foolhardy', says daughter Stella. 'Yet in the end, they grudgingly saw what a beautiful place he'd managed to conceive. My father loved Arbury. He really, really loved it.'
But before Sir Alexander could take up his rightful place in Adelaide society from his new country seat, war intervened. He immediately joined up as a gunner in the Australian artillery, refusing an officer's commission in what was perhaps one of the clearest expressions of his commitment to upholding the democratic ideals of Empire, as he somewhat naively perceived them. He was taken prisoner almost immediately when Singapore fell to the Japanese in one of the greatest military humiliations the British empire had ever suffered, and spent the next thee and half years as a prisoner in Changi - where, as his son likes to point out, there were no 'cocktails from the Adelaide Club'. Here he earned his sobriquet 'Red Downer' for his opposition to officer privileges. 'Although he had some good friends among the officers, some were very hard on the ordinary ranks even as prisoners, and he didn't believe people should be pushed around by their superiors. He wouldn't do that himself, and he didn't think it should be done to himself, or anybody else for that matter.
Sir Alexander made it safely home at the end of the war, returning to the bosom of the Adelaide establishment, and drawing even closer to its heart with his subsequent marriage to Mary Gosse. Mary had made her wartime contribution serving in Land Army, and the couple met at a party at the Australia Hotel, a famous establishment watering hole, shortly after Sir Alexander's return. They were married less than a year later in April 1947. She was twenty-three, he thirty-seven. But they shared similar backgrounds although Mary's heritage, if anything, was even more impressive. Indeed, observers of the Adelaide gentry will tell you that it was this marriage that firmly established the Downers as South Australian bluebloods, for Mary brought with her the influence of power, philanthropy and wealth. The youngest daughter of Sir James Gosse and Joanna Barr Smith, Mary Gosse was herself the child of one of South Australia's great dynastic alliances. (This was hardly unusual, for South Australia's establishment families were threaded together by an intricate network of marriages. Mary's was simply more illustrious than most.) Her father had been knighted for his services to industry and was the head of a wealthy pastoral empire - established by his grandfather, from the vantage point perhaps of serving as the young colony's surveyor-general. It was Joanna Barr smith, Mary's mother, however, who came from the most influential clan of them all - the pinnacle to which all others aspired. The Barr Smiths were the financial backbone of the establishment, the colony's wealthiest family and its first millionaires. Robert Barr Smith, the patriarch of the family and Mary's great-grandfather, had been one of the co-founders of the stock and station firm Elder Smith, the 'gilded prop of south Australia's economy. In a landscape of mansions, the Barr Smiths' winter seat at Torrens park was by far the most palatial. Set in the foothills of Adelaide, with its own chapel, outhouses, stables and even private theatre - designed in perfect imitation of the Victorian music hall - it offered a bold and highly visible statement of the family's status, 'a collection of buildings, too big for one family, which crossed the generations and crossed to other families'. The Barr smiths were far more than merely financial leaders, however. They were also leading philanthropists - responsible for financing the completion of Adelaide's St Peter's Cathedral, among much else. As Stella Downer points out, 'Go to Adelaide and you see the constant references to my mother's family, the Barr smith Library at Adelaide University, and so on. It shows their sense of civic pride and public leadership, and how they really contributed enormously to South Australia's development.'
The Barr Smiths, perhaps of all the Adelaide families, embodied the colony's ideals of noblesse oblige. They were the squires of the district, with a commitment to the welfare of their local community (where they again built churches and schools) as well as to those in their employ. As Alexander Downer's mother makes clear even today: 'I think if you are fortunate in life, you should put something back into it. I'm perfectly certain that it makes things much better if people who have been born, let's say, into a prosperous family, put something back. And I certainly think they ought to do something for nothing in this life.' This outlook found political expression with Mary's marriage to Sir Alexander Downer. 'When he asked me to marry him he said, "Look, before you say anything, I must warn you, I am determined to go into politics, and to get into parliament",' she recalls. 'And I said, well, yes, that was all right, coming from a very non-political family. It was only after the elections, when Alick first became a Member of Parliament in 1949, two years after our marriage, that I suddenly thought, goodness me, what have I done?' Sir Alexander entered parliament as a Liberal backbencher in Sir Robert Menzies's first government, and served with him for the next twelve years, the last six of these as Minister for Immigration. His commitment to national politics, says his daughter Stella, reflected a belief in ' following through what his father had tried so hard to achieve in the Federation of Australia, the pulling together of all the states'. a devout Anglican who would 'kneel down and say his prayers before bed every night', Sir Alexander's career was also marked by his reverence for the noble profession of a father he never knew. He would prove perhaps a more idealistic small 'I' liberal than his father before him, although arguably a less influential politician. 'He always used to say that he thought the two great professions were the Church and politics,' recollects Mary Downer today.
Photographs of Sir Alexander at this time show a tall man with handsome features. Impeccably dressed and with a patrician air, his sense of formality is broken by a broad smile when looking at his young wife. colleagues remember him as somewhat reserved and aloof - an impression not shared by friends, who knew him as Alick. He was also softly spoken and, as a result, was regarded by some as rather effeminate. Recalls his wife: 'He was a very correct person and liked to do things properly. He always was very meticulous about his dressing, always made sure his tie was straight and his shoes were clean. He used to clean his shoes every morning, which I'm ashamed to say I don't do.' In short, despite his war record, Sir Alexander's bearing was somewhat out of step with the robust stereotype of Australian masculinity. 'He had a royal bearing - well, not exactly royal, but a superior standing without ever intending to be superior,' recalls Clyde Cameron who, in his own words, became the Downers' 'favourite socialist'. A federal Labor MP, he had also joined the parliament in 1949, and although the two men would glare at each other from opposite sides of the House, they would sit next to each other on the plane to and from Canberra. 'I didn't like him on reputation,' Clyde confesses, 'because I knew he was a member of the Adelaide Club, or I thought he was. I knew that he had married a girl who belonged to the Barr Smith family, and that she was very wealthy.' (Sir Alexander was, of course, a dedicated member of the Adelaide Club, in his view 'one of the best men's clubs in the world, but never a reservoir of political wisdom'.)
Despite their ideological differences, the two men became firm friends. In Clyde Cameron's eyes, Sir Alexander was simply 'one of the most honourable men I've ever known. He would never break a confidence and would never break his word.' It was an opinion shared by others, on both sides of the House. Although a loyal and cautious politician who, in the words of one Liberal colleague, 'did not like to rock the boat', Sir Alexander believed that party discipline should not be at the expense of voting one's conscience. (He would exercise this belief conservatively, most notably voting with Labor against Casey's peace treaty with Japan, although he eventually became reconciled to a new post-war relationship.) 'His views were always honestly held. I knew they weren't being stated in order to satisfy some faction, and he knew the same about me. That was the thing that drew us together more than anything,' says Cameron. 'The thing I admired about Alick was that he was always truthful. There were none of the shady tricks that are now played as part of the normal ritual. He had a great respect for another person whose point of view was different from his.'
Mary Downer was at times far more vehemently outspoken than her husband. Clyde Cameron recalls her outrage after a speech in parliament in which he condemned the Liberals for wasting so much taxpayers' money drinking champagne at a function for the queen. Meeting Alick and Mary at the airport the next day, he found himself squarely in the firing line. 'Lady Downer kept eyeing me off as though I had stolen her purse. Suddenly she exploded: "You are a bloody reprobate to make that speech about the Liberals guzzling grog and eating oysters, when you and all your socialist mates were stuffing themselves with all that was offering as though you had just come through a famine!" It was, he recalls with admiration, 'a great blast.' Then, or now, there was nothing reticent about Mary Downer. As a young woman she was striking rather than classically beautiful, with a compelling vivacity even in the most posed and languid of portraits. While her husband, even by his friends, was seen as 'terribly English and proper', she was 'great fun! She likes a joke and is more radical than Alick. One would never guess she is a Gosse-Barr Smith cross. She is one of the few Liberal wives who has a natural attractiveness. There is nothing artificial about Mary, and she doesn't hesitate to call a spade a spade.' These days her wide circle of friends include her companions in exercise at the local pool - the 'aqua aerobic girls' - none of whom share her establishment background, and all of whom admire her for her down-to-earth forthrightness and lack of pretension. (There is almost an implicit expectation and acceptance in south Australia, as elsewhere perhaps, that someone of Mary Downer's background is entitled to certain airs and graces. Mary, secure in who she is, is a great and much loved antidote to this - something that is played on, for example, when, as patron of the Barossa Music Festival, she promoted its accessibility by being photographed with a bikie on the back of his Harley-Davidson.)
Says Lady Mary Downer, who is known as 'Cuddles' among the family, 'I think Alick and I were different. He was more serious than me. He also had an extremely good sense of humour and I think we confused people enormously because with his seriousness, people didn't realise what a sense of humour he had, and it made him laugh very much. He was more introverted and I'm more extroverted, I suppose. Maybe that was a good thing. We got on vey well together, and were very happy.' (Agreed one Liberal acquaintance, 'Sir Alexander did have a good sense of humour, but he knew how to keep it private and not to share it with the press.') Others, faced with Mary's strong personality, have less kindly suggested that it was she, not Sir Alexander, who 'wore the pants in the family'. But theirs would be a devoted partnership and Mary would prove Sir Alexander's greatest ally, both at home and in the political field. 'I think my mother's support was one of the most important things to my father,' recalls their daughter Stella. 'In fact, in the writings he left behind, it's very moving, the tributes he always pays to my mother. they show his deep, deep love for her, and his deep respect for her and everything she did for him.' In comparison, Sir Alexander would urge the wife of his colleague Harold Holt to spend more time in Canberra 'if only to help Harold, and to meet the members ... I was amazed by how few MPs she knew. Such unawareness, I used to tell her, could detract from Harold's path to the top.'
Mary Downer would prove the consummate politician's wife, often accompanying her husband to Canberra when parliament was sitting, and on excursions through his electorate. 'IO was often detailed off to ask embarrassing questions, which I was very happy to do,' she confesses cheerfully. 'I can always make out I'm stupid.' She is, of course, anything but, with a thirst for politics and a fierce party (as well as family) loyalty that reflects a genuine vocation. 'I was very new to politics when I married Alick, and I found it quite difficult to start with, but I've always said it's rather like changing your religion; you become quite passionate about it.' She is often credited as having the best politician antennae in the family - and with having been almost as influential in her son's career as she was in her husband's. She has emerged since Sir Alexander's death as the matriarch of the family - although the dynasty's political fortunes now rest on her son's shoulders. (One wonders how far she might have gone if, contrary to tradition, she had been cast in the starring, rather than supporting, role.) Even today, Mary is a tireless campaigner for the Liberal Party, serving alternately as president, secretary and treasurer of her local branch, and handing out 'How to vote' cards deep in enemy territory. She is always assigned the toughest polling booths, but as she says with a laugh, 'It's important to have a presence in a Labor electorate that we would probably never win, and you can have quite a bit of fun standing there.'
In contrast, Sir Alexander 'could never share' his colleagues' enthusiasm for elections. he found them physically tiring and 'an affront to serious work'. 'He was naturally a shy man ,' recalls his daughter Stella, 'so he would have to force himself to get up and speak publicly, and he was always very nervous every time before he did.' Addressing parliament was equally daunting and in his memoirs Sir Alexander admits that 'years passed before I felt at ease in the House, and experience shared by most sensitive members'. On of his most galling memories was of Menzies's response to a parliamentary address Sir Alexander had been asked to give at the start of his second term. 'By words and gestures he ridiculed my apparent nervousness when beginning my speech the night before, an exchange I found anything but endearing.' Reflects Sir Alexander's politician son today: 'I probably enjoy the rough and tumble of politics more than my father did. In that respect i suspect I'm more like my grandfather. I don't think my father liked debating here (in the parliament) with the Labor Party; being attacked, as is the nature of politics; dealing with the interjections that going on around you. I can imagine my grandfather would have rather liked that. He enjoyed the theatre of politics as well as the policies of politics. My father enjoyed the policies of politics. I think he was less comfortable with the theatre of politics.'
Sir Alexander's greatest political contribution according to his family, was in curtailing some of the excesses of the White Australia Policy while Minister for Immigration. 'One of the first things he did was abolish the dictation test, which was a terribly unfair piece of legislation. If a Chinese man wanted to stay in the country, he was given a dictation test, in which maybe he had to speak or write in Arabic. They would do it in a language they knew this poor person had absolutely no chance of knowing, which I think was very unfair.' In Sir Alexander's case, argues his son, a love of Britain and its people formed the basis for a broader philosophy of liberal tolerance. 'As Minister for Immigration he was a prominent advocate of the now fashionable view that migrants and their descendants should not lose touch with their own cultures and traditions, and he rightly predicted that these cultures would enrich Australian life,' wrote Alexander Downer in the 1982 preface to his father's political memoirs. In this regard, Sir Alexander was far less narrowly an Anglophile than his prime minister, for Stella Una had cultivated a rather dreamy appreciation of Europe and its culture in her son. In contrast, 'the other side of the Atlantic, apart from great Britain, held little attraction for Menzies', and Sir Alexander simply could not understand his prime minister's lack of interest in 'the incomparable glories of Italy, Australia, Switzerland, France and parts of Germany ... these fountains of our civilization.' Their different outlooks were mirrored in their view s on immigration, at a time when governments were keen to attract as many new citizens as the economy could absorb. 'On immigration policy he usually gave me his blessing,' wrote Sir Alexander of Menzies, 'but not without growls of disapproval about the stream of Italians and Greeks we were attracting. Settlers from Asia were even less acceptable.
While the White Australia Policy remained firmly in place, Sir Alexander's appreciation of other cultures clearly influenced his ministerial work. 'For my father, bringing people from different cultures around the world was something that he found very exciting.' In Sir Alexander's opinion, these new immigrants brought 'attributes which our rather stodgy Anglo-Saxon communities are much in need of',. Nor did he advocate an isolationist stance towards Asia, but rather an 'unselfish' embracing of what he believed would inevitably emerge 'as part of our destiny'. although in many respects very different to his father, Sir Alexander shared Sir John's openness to creative political change. From the perspective of a new century in which public sentiment has become ambivalent to immigration and turned against refugees - appeased and sustained by what many might regard as a carefully crafted government xenophobia - Sir Alexander's enthusiasm seems particularly poignant. Newsreels of half a century ago show him proudly and personally welcoming the 250,000th refugee to Australia's shores, and assuring journalists that the government would meet its target of an additional 100,000 migrants that year. An older cousin, John Downer, remembers grateful migrants from Poland and the Netherlands dropping in to Arbury Park for tea with the man who had made it possible.
Another regular guest at the Downer estate was the then prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, who would generally time his stays to coincide with Test matches at the Adelaide Oval. When not at the cricket, he would walk in the Aubury meadows, 'a mixture of the Australian and English scene'. On Sundays, he would participate in the family's weekly service at the little chapel Sir Alexander had built in memory of his mother. 'It was unforgettable,' writes Sir Alexander, 'hearing that expressionful voice reading the lessons from the lectern.' Stella Downer recollects those visits a little differently, influenced less by her fondness for the great man and more by her memory of always having to very quiet. 'As we were four rather noisy children, it was actually incredibly difficult.' Nor was Sir Robert Menzies the only politician to visit Arbury Park. Clyde Cameron has fond memories of being 'treated like royalty' during his many visits, and Gough and Margaret Whitlam also stayed. Even Eddie Ward, Labor's most outspoken left-wing firebrand, who refused to speak to most Liberals, paid a visit. (In his defence, Eddie Ward argued that Mary's grandfather, Sir Robert Barr Smith, had paid off the Trades Hall in Adelaide, so the family's politics had clearly once been sound.) At the same time, Sir Alexander's mansion was a soft target for the Opposition. Labor backbencher Mick Young in particular would regale parliament with his story of timidly knocking on the door of a building several times more palatial than the Prime Minister's Lodge, only to be told that he was at the gatehouse.
For Stella Downer, as would be the case for most children, these political intrusions were often unwelcome. 'I can remember governors-general coming to visit and I can remember having to line up in the hall to meet them and having to be polite ... I can remember very clearly when my father was made Minister for Immigration and being extremely irritated, having to dress up. It was so exciting to have my parents home, but then having to dress up in good clothes and having to stand there and be photographed when all I wanted to do was run around. We all were very grumpy, I remember.' One of Stella's earliest memories is of her brother's christening - another occasion for mixed feelings. 'I must have been three and a half, or maybe four, and my father hung flags from the portico out here, which was very exciting, and I had to sit very quietly outside with my sister Angela because we were dressed up, and read a book. I can remember looking at these words and thinking, why can't I understand what they say, and why should such a fuss be made of this little baby?' Alexander John Gosse Downer was born in 1951 - the third of Sir Alexander and Mary Downer's four children and their only son. for him and his sisters, Arbury Park in all its grandeur was first and foremost a family home; a place with 'marvelous banisters to slide down' and a large nursery in which they would play and squabble. 'it was an idyllic place to grow up,' recalls Stella. 'My father and I would often go for walks together. I can still smell the eucalypts there, and the creek that ran at the bottom of the garden. But the house had a certain sadness for me as well ... My parents lived very busy lives and would often be in Canberra, and I suppose I felt the responsibility of being left with my younger brother and sisters. I suppose I just wanted my parents there the whole time.'
It was, all the same, a close family and Alexander Downer's response to accusations of privilege is to admit to the privilege of having been raised by supportive and loving parents. Moreover, even federal politics in those days was very much a family affair. during school holidays, the Downer children would accompany their parents to Canberra, making the long drive for a three-week parliamentary sitting. 'It was a bit different when my father was a member of parliament,' reflects Alexander Downer, 'because he and my mother used to own a house in Canberra and would spend long periods of time there. Nowadays, you just realistically can't do that. You have to get away, go back to your electorate, do things in the electorate, and then come back the following week. So I rent a house with a couple of senators. We don't have a lot of space, and it's all a bit more barbaric now than it was back in the fifties and early sixties.' His own children seldom visit the national capital, and have never sat in the House of Representatives to watch their father during question time - something Sir Alexander's children were frequently required to do, in what was 'one of the low points' of an otherwise enjoyable holiday.
'We used to be dragged as children into the chamber to sit in the visitors' gallery to watch Question Time. I'd have to admit we found it indescribably boring. But my father wanted to have his wife and children there to watch him perform. It obviously gave him a bit of a buzz, even if it put us to sleep,' laughs Alexander Downer today. 'He quizzed us on everything he took us to. He'd take us to the dining room in the old Parliament House and he'd buy us a chocolate malted milk, and while we were sitting there we'd be asked questions of what we'd seen, and who was who, and we'd be introduced to people as they passed by.' a better time was generally had playing cricket with Sir Robert Menzie's nephews at the Lodge. Nevertheless, having political parents is an advantage for aspiring politicians, admits Alexander Downer, who points to the high number of second-generation members in parliament today. Nor is this restricted to the conservative side of politics - Kim Beazley and Simon Crean, to name but two in the federal labor Party, have followed in their fathers' footsteps, although a daughter has yet to take up this role on either side of the House. The exercise of political power in contemporary democracies (as with other forms of government) clearly still lends itself to traditional dynastic arrangements. Only Alexander Downer and Larry Anthony of the National Party, however, can boast of a dynamic lineage going back three generations.
"You probably learn a little bit about the need to be - how can I put it - reasonably cunning to be a successful politician. and you do learn those things on the knees of your parents,' confesses Alexander Downer of having a father in politics. But more than that, he says, politics is an 'all-embracing occupation', and growing up in its vicinity encourages a natural interest and understanding. 'You can imagine at home, just sitting around with my parents, or in the car driving to Canberra for interminable hours, that my parents would in particular talk about politics. You know, the gossip of politics, the policies of politics, are we going to win the next election, or won't w? the problems, the worries, the excitements. The celebrations when my father did well; the disappointments when things didn't go well.' On election night, the Downer children would gather round the fireplace in Sir Alexander's study to listen to each result as it came in on the radio. Politics was also the main topic of conversation at the family dinner table. But, insists Stella Downer, theirs was 'a liberal household' in the broadest sense of the word, in which 'nothing was censored' and everything was up for debate. 'We would sit down to meals and would have the most enlightened discussions on everything from religion to politics, of course, social conditions, economics, sex, everything.,' she recalls. 'We would discuss everything very openly, and Alexander, being a boy and more agressive, would hold his own very well and make a point of doing so.' at the same time, Sir Robert Menzies was the family hero who, despite his minor differences with Sir Alexander, was 'a great and towering figure, somebody that we were requited to admire as a family, and were happy top admire as a family as well'. For the Downer children, Menzies was 'the personification of Australia ... a symbol of all that was good.' Recollects Alexander Downer, 'We grew up believing that god was in the heaven, and bob Menzies was in the Lodge, and that Australia was just this fantastic place.'
In this idealised world, politics was seen as a noble calling. 'There was a view in our family there was something very meritorious about playing a significant role in government, which in our family was viewed as a pinnacle of the way society works. In a lot of families it is believed that what you should aspire to is making a lot of money and the definition of success is to be a millionaire or whatever. In our family, the definition of a successful life was making a mark on the way society evolved. In our family that has been regarded for generations as the definition of success. But times were a-changing. In 1963, after six years as immigration minister, Sir Alexander was offered the post of Australian High commissioner to London. Some see his appointment by Menzies as evidence that there was no longer room on the front bench for so well-mannered and benign a conservative. 'I wonder whether he was too decent or he wasn't tough enough?' queries Clyde Cameron - a suggestion staunchly rebuffed by Lady Mary Downer. The offer coincided with a personal tragedy for Sir Alexander Downer the loss of his beloved estate, Arbury Park. This injury came, ironically, at the hands of a fellow Liberal, the then south Australian premier Sir Thomas Playford, who was determined to build a six-land freeway to the city across Sir Alexander's front lawn. The son of a cherry-packer, Playford held strong anti-establishment values, which often placed him at loggerheads with many in his own party. Sir Alexander's entreaties - including an offer to meet the costs of a detour - fell on deaf ears, and he was left with little choice but to sell up and move. So resentful was he of his treatment by Playford that, as he later confided to Clyde Cameron, he would vote for Don Dunstan, the Labor candidate, in the next state election. His wife, however, had never shared her husband's great love for Arbury Park, for it had been in some ways lesser house than her mother-in-law's, who had presided there for over a decade before their wedding. (It is also hard to imagine Mary Downer under any circumstances voting Labor.) although Arbury Park still stands, it is no longer a family home but a corporate office, buffeted by the sounds of traffic.
If Playford's lack of thought for the sensibilities of the Adelaide gentry signalled a new national mood, Sir Alexander Downer, now ensconced in the High Commissioner's residence at Kensington, knew nothing of it. He continued to educate his children in the manner of his class, if anything upping the ante. Sir Alexander had sent his son to his alma mater, Geelong Grammar. Now, with his posting to Britain, he enrolled him at Radcliffe, an elite English boarding school. Meanwhile, his two eldest daughters were sent to finishing school in Switzerland. 'I think my father wanted the very best for his children,' reflects Stella Downer today. 'And he was very idealistic, and perhaps I think out of touch with what was really going on.' sixteen-year-old Stella found the shift from her 'protected and limited' south Australian upbringing bewildering. 'I was with people like Christina Onassis and Saudi Arabian princesses and Kuwaiti princesses. I found it very strange and daunting.' Her brother found the transition equally problematic. The irony, he says, is that 'I get sneered at by the Canberra press gallery about my English education, but it was not my choice. I was patronised and I put up with that for years (at school).' He was, he recalls, 'pilloried' and 'called a colonial'. Nor was it just by fellow students. 'the staff shared the same imperious, unfriendly and unsympathetic. I think of those days and I think of the grey and the drizzle and the cold.' The experience, he says, gave him an abiding distaste for Britain's deeply entrenched class system and the forelock-tugging deference of its working class.
Sir Alexander, however, was in his element. On being offered the high commissionership, he had advised his prime minister that he intended to buy a place of his own in the English countryside, both as a family retreat and as an opportunity for 'country house diplomacy'. Unsure of how Menzies would react, he was relieved by his enthusiasm, for 'none of my predecessors in London had interpreted the position in that way'. In October 1965, the Downers duly bought a country estate in Wiltshire. Oare House was 'built mainly in 1740, but more Queen Anne than Georgian in design, set amidst extensive gardens with commanding views over its fields, woods and the Marlborough downs'. In fact there were over three hectares of garden, including a traditional walled garden with flowers, vegetables, fruit trees and closely cut grasses. Neighbours included the former politician Sir Anthony Eden, then Lord Avon and the noted jurist Lord Devlin. Once again Menzies was a regular visitor, mixing martini cocktails, talking politics and imparting his wisdom to the young Alexander. 'I must have been sixteen or seventeen, and my father wanted Sir Robert to give me advice about what I should do once I left school.' Alexander Downer recalls. 'Even though we were staying in the same house, an appointment had to be made ... It was indeed like a child going before the school principal. He was a kindly man, but he was also a great figure, so he was formidable. I walked into the library with trepidation, but there he was sitting with a cigar, and gave me his lifetime advice ...
'I asked him, if I were to become a politician one day what would be a good early path. He advised me to do law, which I didn't want to do ... the second thing he said was that you shouldn't become a member of parliament before you were thirty, and you shouldn't become a member of parliament after you were forty. That is good advice. Because after you're forty, you are set in your ways. So I remember that part of it quite clearly.' today, Alexander Downer also believes that to study law, as both his father and grandfather had done, 'is the best background' for a politician. He himself would study economics and politics at the University of Newcastle - his early hopes of following his father to Oxford dashed by poor grades. 'In retrospect,' reflects Alexander of his disappointment at not being admitted, 'it was a good thing I didn't (get in). I think coming out of Geelong Grammar and an English public school, in terms of my development as a human being, it was important I got away from that sort of environment and had a broader experience of society.' But this redbrick university would make no start on his political loyalties. While other students were bussed to London to take part in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Alexander (as his mother fondly recalls) would seize the opportunity for a free lift home. As an honours student, he wrote his dissertation on the evolution of the Australian Liberal Party. He also became a member of the university's intervarsity debating team as he had made a crucial discovery about himself: he was a good debater, and he liked provoking the Left.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Alexander Downer would met his future wife, Nicky Robinson, at university. Adelaide gossips will tell you that eyebrows were raised among certain circles on hearing of their relationship, remarking that Alexander Downer had tied himself to a girl whose family was in trade. (No matter that the Robinsons had had their own large and successful manufacturing business, Robinson & Sons, for more than one hundred and fifty years.) In turn, Nicky Downer, as she became, has been known to joke that Alexander married her to bring some common blood into the illustrious Downer line. She still remembers her first visit home to meet his parents. 'He gave me no idea what to expect. I remember I was so shocked when I drove up the drive of their house, I had to stop the car. She had since been credited with bringing a keen intelligence and political skills to their partnership. In the tradition of his father before him, Alexander Downer had found in his wife an outstanding ally - someone who would work closely with him behind the scenes, but who was far from relegated to the back seat - and colleagues will often point to the considerable influence of women in the Downer family. Nicky would put aside a promising career in journalism with the BBC to join Alexander in Australia when, in 1975, he joined the Department of foreign Affairs, becoming of the only thirty-two candidates selected out of hundreds of applicants.
The career move was partly at his father's urging. Sir Alexander had grown increasingly disenchanted with Australian politics and was no longer sure if it was the right profession for his son. Menzies had retired in 1966 after seventeen years at the helm, and the Liberals had undergone a succession of leaders until being swept from power in 1972. Gough Whitlam's new Labor government, which included Clyde Cameron on the front bench, presided over a political landscape dramatically different to that which Sir Alexander had known. 'He really believed that it had become so much rougher, and the House of Representatives had become a different place to when he knew it,' recalls Stella Downer. 'he would feel very disillusioned about that and I think he would try to protect my brother, and he would say, "What about being a diplomat? that's a more civiilised and rewarding life for you."
Australia - Dynasties - The Downer Family - Part 3
Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia
Australian Aboriginal Anthropology
Australian Aboriginal Music