The Art of the Australian Insult

Alexander Downer goes into the garden to eat worms
July 14, 2008, 3:18 am
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“History will judge him on how he handled the big issues. And he was found wanting.”

Ashley Cooper, letter to the SMH, on Alexander Downer. A couple of readers were not impressed with Downer’s complaint that the media is anti-conservative.

“Alexander Downer says public commentary is “rich with abuse” and “blatantly anti-conservative”. Let me throw up a few terms: elites, chardonnay socialists, latte-sippers, chattering classes, bleeding hearts, tree-huggers, anti-American and un-Australian just for a start. At least he got the personal abuse bit right.”

Graeme Finn.


“This is the same Alexander Downer who referred to participants at the 2020 summit as “Keating-loving elites”

Maureen Chuck. Ross Sharp has the last word:

“What Alexander Downer was really trying to say was, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go into the garden and eat worms.”

Alexander the not-so-great
July 11, 2008, 1:25 am
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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.

The departure of Alexander is a downer. Or is it?

“Just tell him to fuck off. Can’t you see I’m very busy?”


Alexander Downer, former foreign minister, to new staffers when an important dignitary was waiting to see him. Downer would wait for an uncomfortably long time before bursting into laughter. Paul Daley explains,

“It was at once Downer’s idea of a personality test and a joke. Puerile? Yes. Funny? Undeniably, for those who witnessed it.”

Daley has mixed feelings about Downer’s departure; the man was at least a colourful character:

“Downer could present one minute as the archetypal Tory boofhead and the next as John Howard’s battering ram, yelling down his enemies in Parliament, arguing black is white and taking no prisoners along the way.

His stint as Liberal leader – during which he was utterly humiliated by his own party, by Paul Keating, but mostly by himself – would have killed others.”

As he quotes a senior minister:

“Mate, we are the most effing boring government since federation…and that’s just the way Kev wants it.”

“Welcome to the New Calvinism,” reflects Daley. “Or should that be the New Kevin-ism?”


Mike Carlton in the Sydney Morning Herald is less ambivalent. taking issue with Janet Albrechtsen who wrote in The Australian, “Like him or loathe him, Downer’s record as foreign minister is imposing.”

“No, it’s not. It’s dreadful. He was the worst since poor, bewildered Billy McMahon, who once did a television interview with me in Saingapore convinced, against all the evidenc,e that he was actually in Saigon. Downer was barely a notch up form that.

With John Howard egging him on, his instinctive groveling to the Bush Administration dragged us into the disaster of Iraq. Evidently incapable of original thought, he saw the world through the prism of the neoconservatives of Washington, parroting their slogans with the blustering self-assurance of a truly third-rate mind. In Asia, especially Indonesia, they treated him as Little Sir Echo. To the newly independent Government of East Timor he was a swaggering bully. ”

The Ambassador for Hummus
July 3, 2008, 4:09 am
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“Now that Alexander is heading off to represent Australia in Cyprus, does that mean the Member for Mayo shold now be referred to has the Ambassador for Hummus?”

Rachel Polanskis, letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, July 3 2008.

Alexander Downer has his tummy tickled
July 2, 2008, 9:02 am
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“In the years he served as our foreign minister, most of the time he was having his tummy tickeld by the likes of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice as they dictated Australia’s foreign policy.”

Barry Everingham, letter to The Australian.