Attila the Pun
Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Alexander Downer recently got into Labor's hero, Curtin, so today Alan Ramsey decided to have a crack at Downer's family history.

Under the oh-so subtle headline "A journey into Downer's dark past" we get a quick history lesson in the slaughter of Aborigines by early pastoralists.

Whilst I put little faith in any history told to be my Ramsey, I have no doubt that Aborigines were treated appallingly by early settlers.

We learn more specifically about Constable Willshire, said to have murdered a great number of Aboriginal people. We then get this:

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.

Quite a distinguished family history I would have said, and one fails to see any connection with the first half of the article. Were some of Downer's ancestors said to have also murdered Aborigines? Nope:

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".

Thats it. That is the total sum of his connection. Downer's grandfather, a distinguished lawyer, once successfully defended a man charged with murder, who has also been accused of murdering Aborigines.

If Ramsey could draw a longer bow than this he would be recruited by the Olympic archery team.

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