Headline over Alan Ramsey’s latest column: “A journey into Downer’s dark past”. Here’s the foreign minister’s alleged past of darkness:
The patriarch of the Downer family was Henry Downer, an immigrant tailor who arrived in Adelaide from England in 1838. Henry had several sons, among them John William, born in 1843, Henry Edward, and George. John William went on to get free secondary schooling by scholarship at Adelaide’s Collegiate School of St Peter, “where he proved brilliant”, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
John William was later articled to brother Henry Edward, admitted to the South Australian Bar in 1867, and, with elder brother George, a prominent pastoralist, founded the “leading legal firm, J. and G. Downer”. John entered state politics in 1878, became attorney-general in 1881 and was twice premier of his state – 1885-87 and 1892-93. At Federation in 1901 – by then Sir John Downer – he became one of South Australia’s six original senators but resigned in December 1903 after missing appointment to the founding High Court.
John Downer died in 1915. He was twice married and survived by a son from each marriage. The son of his second marriage was Alexander Russell Downer, later a cabinet minister in the Menzies government in 1949 and, as Sir Alexander, Australian high commissioner to London in 1964. He, too, sired a son, Alexander John Gosse Downer, briefly Opposition leader in 1994 and John Howard’s Foreign Minister for all of the last nine years as his reward for stepping down for Howard.
And what is it we learn of this distinguished family history in Roberts’s book on this country’s ruthless savagery by 19th-century pastoralists towards indigenous people? On pages 133 and 134 Roberts recounts how the notorious Constable Willshire, at his Port Augusta acquittal on multiple murder charges in 1891, was defended by the Foreign Minister’s grandfather, “Sir John Downer, QC, former attorney-general and premier, with funds contributed by more than 60 supporters from Central Australia”.
Most of it probably from our early land barons and their hirelings.
Alexander Downer’s dark past: his grandfather was a lawyer.