The chance that Alexander Downer was playing a lone hand in his comments on Indonesia is about as close to zero as possible. Australian commentary and political leadership had got to the stage where the goal of foreign policy was not to offend anyone and not much else. Abbott needed that to change.
Downer’s comments reframed the relationship with Indonesia, helping to give Abbott much more room within which to move.
His proposition was that there is a sovereignty issue between Indonesia and Australia, and that issue is that the boats which illegally bring people here leave Indonesian ports, manned by Indonesian crews.
Subsequently we found that the Indonesian army is also involved, although undoubtedly Downer knew that from his time as foreign minister.
Since 2007 Australia’s foreign policy has veered all over the place, showing a distinct lack of understanding, nuance and self-confidence. We managed to offend countries at the same time we were trying to curry favour with them, and our fixation with winning a place on the Security Council further warped our policies and behaviour.
The contempt with which we were held was amply demonstrated by the comments from Marty Natalegawa, and the leaking of meeting notes between him and Julie Bishop.
Downer, Australia’s longest serving foreign minister, and still an active participant in Liberal Party politics was a perfect foil. Neither the current minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, nor Tony Abbott, could publicly buy into the argument without making the position more difficult to negotiate, but Downer had the standing to do it for them.
This is a very subtle, and seemingly effective, approach.
One hopes ministers in other areas are paying attention.
Over the years Labor and the left-wing establishment has been very successful in colonising public debate.
Tony Abbott has noted that “the government has changed”, but winning elections is not winning the war. The government needs a network of allies and allied organisations that can put the case for change and help to win the battles that must be won in order to change Australia.
The “Downer two-step” shows how it can be done.
Yes, results count, but results will not be achieved in most cases without argument as well. That’s an area where the coalition has been traditionally weak.