The Art of the Australian Insult


Alexander the not-so-great
July 11, 2008, 1:25 am
Filed under: Politicians | Tags: , ,

The spat between former foreign minister Alexander Downer and journalist Peter Hartcher has generated some good examples of the art of the Australian insult. Here’s the passage in Hartcher’s article that upset Downer:

“Downer can be petty and puerile. He plays a mean-spirited, personal, scratchy game of partisan politics. He can be breathtakingly immature.

He was always ready to be flippant and frivolous. He was something of an Inspector Clouseau of foreign ministers: pompous, slightly ridiculous, self-important, hard to take seriously, though ultimately getting through most of his assignments with some bare seat-of-the-pants competence.”

Hartcher had introduced the article with an anecdote – related by Downer himself – in which he spotted Dick Woolcott, former secretary of the department of foreign affairs and trade, at an airport. Woolcott had emerged as a critic of Australia’s foreign policy, so Downer called out “Loser!” and then ducked out of sight so he would not be seen: “In recounting the story,” wrote Hartcher, “Downer seemed to think it a very funny thing to do.”

Hartcher’s assessment of Downer was quietly brutal:

“Downer lacked judgment, and that lack of judgment meant he never acquired gravitas. He held high office, but at a low level.”

He also quotes Dick Woolcott, who claims he didn’t hear Downer call him a loser, but did say, “Downer and Howard were accomplices in probably the most catastrophic foreign policy decision the US has made.”

Downer did not find this article funny at all. Here he responds in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

“The tragedy of much public commentary in Australia is that it is blatantly anti-conservative, fascinated with trivia and, when it comes to conservatives, rich with personal abuse.

Peter Hartcher’s retrospective last week of my 12 years as foreign minister was a case in point. For any commentator who is a self-styled serious analyst of Australian foreign policy to reduce a dozen years of diplomacy to a tirade of personal abuse is to reveal a stark and embarrassing anti-intellectual bigotry.”

After listing the achievements of his 12 years of diplomacy (during which he, presumably, did not call any of his counterparts from other nations “Loser”), Downer concludes:

“One of the saddest things about modern Australia is we still have commentators such as Hartcher who don’t care about any of these issues. They just want to make puerile anti-conservative party political points built on a foundation of trivia.”

Clearly, Downer feels betrayed by the citing of an anecdote that does not show him in the best possible light. Which makes one wonder why he told it to a journalist of all people in the first place. If there is anti-intellectual bigotry and anti-conservative bias in the media, Downer himself – a man who all too frequently embraced a persona apparently at odds with the gravitas of his position – is partly to blame.

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