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Downer, Sir Alexander Russell (Alick) (1910–1981)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Alexander Russell (Alick) Downer (1910-1981), politician and diplomat, was born on 7 April 1910 in North Adelaide, son of Australian-born parents Sir John William Downer, solicitor and member of the Legislative Council, and his second wife Una Stella Haslingden, née Russell. Alick, as he was commonly known, was 5 when his father died, and the boy received his early education at The Hutchins School, Hobart. From 1924 he boarded at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, winning several prizes, earning a reputation for debating and, in his final year (1927), obtaining honours in five subjects, including a first in British history.

In 1928 Downer went up to Brasenose College, Oxford (BA, 1932; MA, 1947), where he studied philosophy, politics and economics, and took a diploma in economics and political science (1932). After reading law in London, he was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1934. He returned to Adelaide and was admitted to the South Australian Bar on 24 April 1935, but he spent much of his time as a grazier on his estate, Arbury Park, near Bridgewater in the Adelaide Hills. There he built a two-storey Georgian-style mansion, attached a deer park and, after his mother died in 1955, added a chapel in her memory.

Downer had grown into a handsome, fit-looking man, almost six feet (183 cm) tall. With the outbreak of World War II, he was mobilised in the Militia on 22 July 1940. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 30 November and was posted to the 2/14th Field Regiment. Arriving in Singapore in August 1941, he served as a gunner with headquarters, 8th Divisional Artillery, and was captured by the Japanese in February 1942. He spent the rest of the war at Changi. As an acting sergeant, he helped to pass the time by assembling a library, holding classes in law and politics for his fellow prisoners, and giving them elocution lessons. Captivity taught him to value comradeship, reflection and spiritual nourishment. Although he later expressed wonder that so many had survived Changi and were `able to live useful lives’, his own inner strength ensured that he was numbered among them.

After the war Downer returned to South Australia and was discharged from the army on 15 November 1945. At the Church of the Epiphany, Crafers, on 23 April 1947 he married with Anglican rites Mary Isobel Gosse, daughter of (Sir) James Gosse. Securing Liberal Party preselection for the rural seat of Angas, he was elected to the House of Representatives as part of the Liberal-Country Party victory in 1949, and retained the seat until his retirement in 1964. He sat on the back-bench for over eight years: Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies was in no hurry to elevate the younger, so-called `forty-niners’, many of them idealistic ex-servicemen. During this time Downer was a member of the parliamentary delegation to the coronation (1953) of Queen Elizabeth II, and of several parliamentary committees, most notably those concerned with constitutional review and foreign affairs. Menzies eventually appointed him minister for immigration on 20 March 1958 and next year brought him into cabinet.

Downer’s appointment coincided with a growing campaign by immigration reform organisations to modify the White Australia policy. The new minister contributed to change in 1959 by removing the notorious dictation test, which he described as `an archaic, heavy-handed piece of machinery’ whose `clumsy, creaking operation has evoked much resentment outside Australia, and has tarnished our good name in the eyes of the world’. In its place he introduced `the neat, simple expedient of an entry permit’. He also piloted an amendment to facilitate naturalisation of non-European spouses and unmarried children of Australian citizens. Simultaneously, he removed arbitrary ministerial powers to deport, extended the legal rights of potential deportees and, citing his experience as a detainee in a prisoner-of-war camp, provided for non-criminal deportees to be held in detention centres rather than gaols. The object was to impart `justice, tolerance, and humanity in accord with liberal principles’, and thus to give Australia `in many respects … the finest immigration charter that the world has yet seen’.

He may have presided over a minor liberalisation of the White Australia policy, but Downer was determined to preserve Australia’s `predominantly homogeneous population’. He remained unmoved when the Student Action movement—formed just before the 1961 Federal election—harassed him at political meetings. Believing that the large majority of Australians wanted to maintain the existing restrictive policies, he argued that every country had the right to choose its own racial mix, that homogeneity was the best defence against the disharmony that affected all mixed-race societies, and that Australia’s Asian neighbours understood and accepted Australia’s stand. He was equally adamant on another issue: although he welcomed migrants from continental Europe, he asserted in 1959 that he favoured attracting `our kinsfolk’ from Britain to ensure that Australia remained essentially `a British country’.

While Downer could successfully resist demands for change in immigration policy, he could not—on a personal matter—sway Sir Thomas Playford’s State Liberal government. Playford had approved plans in 1962 to construct a freeway through the Adelaide Hills, bisecting Arbury Park and passing within 200 yards (183 m) of the house. Downer sought a compromise by offering to cede land on the edge of the estate. Advised that diverting the highway would be too expensive, Playford rejected the offer. After Menzies invited Downer at the end of 1963 to succeed

Sir Eric Harrison as Australian high commissioner in London, Alick decided to settle the issue and sold Arbury Park to the South Australian government. When Menzies also recommended him for a knighthood—he was appointed KBE in 1965—the news came as `sunshine after rain’ (Mary’s mother had recently died) and the recommendation was even more welcome coming from a man who could `always count upon my loyalty, friendship, and affection’.

Sir Alexander, his black hair having turned into a distinguished grey, looked and sounded the part in representing Australia in a post he obviously enjoyed, not least because the position involved a special relationship with British ministers of the day. In October 1965 the Downers acquired Oare House in Wiltshire, built in the 1740s—but, according to Alick, `more Queen Anne than Georgian’—where visitors from Australia and Britain were warmly and informally entertained. The Downers moved easily through the upper political and social world, but it was a difficult time for an Anglophile and a passionate Commonwealth man to be high commissioner. The fact that Britain had a Labour government (1964-70) was not itself a problem, although he did have reservations about Prime Minister (Sir) Harold (Baron) Wilson. Downer had good personal relations with several Labour ministers and a high regard for many whose politics were far removed from his own. What he found disturbing and saddening was the prospect of Britain joining the European Economic Community and of ending its military commitments east of Suez. He feared that `our British connections would recede’, while noting that the majority of migrants going to Australia were of British stock and that, despite the `occasional rumblings of the avantgarde, no country has shown itself more loyal to the Sovereign’.

Alick left the London post in October 1972 and in 1975 the Downers settled on their new rural property north-east of Adelaide. Full retirement was not an option. He had promised to speak out: `Though I’m nominally a diplomat … substantially I’m a politician’. Downer wanted to be a link between Britain and Australia, and he and Mary travelled frequently between both. Made a freeman of the City of London in 1965, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1968. In 1973 the University of Birmingham conferred on him an honorary LL D. He served on the boards of several societies and, despite the illness of his final years, completed a manuscript entitled Six Prime Ministers, which was published posthumously (1982). It dealt, in part, with the prime ministers he knew well: Menzies, Harold Holt and John Gorton of Australia; Wilson and (Sir) Edward Heath of Britain; and Viscount Brookeborough of Northern Ireland. His account was invaluable as a corrective to conventional wisdom: Downer was one of the first to clear Menzies of the charge of being a dictator in cabinet. The book also reveals much about the writer: a shrewd judge of character with a cultivated mind and a readiness to temper criticisms of political friends and foes in the light of the pressures placed on politicians.

Unfailingly courteous, Downer had what Menzies once described as `an uncommon capacity for getting on with people’. William Hayden, as leader of the Labor Opposition, called him `an extraordinarily decent man’. A tribute in The Times referred to his `sheer goodness’ and his `stern sense of public duty’.

He believed that a privileged background imposed obligations. It was easy enough—if unfair—to typecast him as an unreconstructed Tory, and as a member of the Adelaide Establishment who spoke in the accents of southern England and who steadfastly maintained positions even as they were becoming anachronistic. Downer—correctly—saw himself as `a mixture of the conservative and the radical’. The man who continued to support the White Australia policy was the one who spoke out against censorship, applauded the changes in sexual mores in the late 1960s, entertained notable Labor leftists such as Eddie Ward and Clyde Cameron at his home, and praised Donald Dunstan, the Labor premier of South Australia, for helping to propel the State out of its `intellectual desert’.

Downer died on 30 March 1981 at his home and was cremated. He was survived by his spirited wife and their three daughters and son, Alexander, who led the federal Liberal Party in 1994-95 and who, in 1996, was appointed minister for foreign affairs in the Howard government. A portrait of Alick by (Sir) Ivor Hele is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • H. I. London, Non-White Immigration and the `White Australia’ Policy (1970)
  • B. O’Neil et al (eds), Playford’s South Australia (1996)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 1 May 1958, p 1396, 1 Apr 1981, p 1159
  • Canberra Times, 19 June 1964, p 2
  • Australian, 1 May 1971, p 17, 13 Jan 1972, p 2, 14 Jan 1972, p 9
  • Corian, July-Aug 1978, p 306, Oct 1981, p 74
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Apr 1981, p 15
  • Times (London), 4 Apr 1981, p 14, 6 Apr 1981, p 14
  • Sir Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Downer, Sir Alexander Russell (Alick) (1910–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/downer-sir-alexander-russell-alick-12434/text22357, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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