Attila the Pun
Thursday, August 11, 2005
Down on success

Crikey.com.au has got stuck into the Downer family by criticising the recent winning of an exclusive scholarship by Alexander Downer's daughter, Georgina. They pose a series of rhetorical questions:

Does an Australian foreign minister have a conflict of interest if a close member of his family is awarded a prestigious scholarship by a country which uses such scholarships to "contribute to the maintenance of a strong relationship between the countries"?

Is an unfortunate perception created during a time of war when the daughter of the foreign minister receives a valuable benefit from one of Australia's key allies in that war?

But are careful to say this:

Crikey isn't suggesting any impropriety by either Mr Downer or his daughter in her successful application for one of the Chevening scholarships, due to be announced in a few weeks' time. Nor do we suggest any kind of direct interference by Mr Downer. (emphasis added)

Except that by writing the article in the first place, thats exactly what they are suggesting. To add to their suggestion of undue influence, they also decide to attack her academic results:

According to the application forms, Chevening scholarships are available each year to a small number of Australians who have "obtained, or expected to obtain, at least an upper second class undergraduate degree" (in 2003, for example, seven out of eight Chevening scholars had first class honours degrees). Georgina Downer was awarded a third class honours degree from Melbourne University.

Not only does the selection process include an interview component, but maybe the selection panel also realised that not all honours degrees are created equal.

After they contacted Mr Downer's office, they got this answer:

Through his spokesman Mr Downer told Crikey: "Every time she has been successful in life she has had to put up with this accusation. She should be left alone to pursue her own successful career."

I couldn't agree more - while they are at it, why doesn't Crikey also suggest that she only got her job at Minter Ellison (a top tier law firm) because the firm was hoping for government work?

Georgina Downer has not replied to our emails.

Good. What do they expect her to say?

In writing this story we do feel badly for Georgina Downer. She's not a politician and, as her father says, she should be left to live her own life and have her own privacy. She doesn't deserve this attention.

I am not sure I believe that they do feel bad, but either way, you can hear the "but" coming from a mile off.

But the harsh reality is that when someone decides to take on high political office they drag their families into their net. And in a democracy where proper and open conduct is critical, that's exactly as it should be. Which means that sometimes, in the interests of optics and fairness, family members of powerful politicians must refrain from doing things they could do if they weren't a close relative of a government minister.

You should certainly never take advantage of something like that, but nor should Downer's children be expected to hamper their own lives and careers because of it.

Alexander Downer shouldn't have done this to his daughter – or to Australia.

Ignoring the sanctimonious tone of that last line, it also sums up what is wrong with this article. What exactly is Downer accused of having "done" to his daughter and Australia? They keep saying they don't think he interfered, which means the only people that have "done" things are Georgina in applying, and the scholarship committee in awarding it to her.

What should Downer have done - told his 25 year old legally qualified daughter what she can and can't apply for? Spiked her chances by having a quiet word to the committee? Who would or should do that to their children?

Thankfully, Crikey's readership appears to have taken issue with this as well:

Now that my derision has subsided, I feel moved to respond to your two days of vilification of Alexander Downer, and now his daughter, for God's sake. What do you people know of proper conduct? (You have criticised the absolutely proper ostracising of the low-life socialite who Edward VII married). Now you are so small and narrow as to be critical of a perfectly good Australian sense of humour in Downer. Your attack on him in relation to his daughter is utterly and transparently petty.


Oh, bullsh*t! Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't I read somewhere in this diatribe that Georgina Downer is a 25-year-old woman with a career of her own? What right has Downer or anyone else to direct or expect his independent adult daughter to limit her career ambitions because some idiot journalist somewhere might exercise their political prejudice against him on the basis of her actions? Grow up.

though there is this:

How could anyone with a third class honours degree be awarded a scholarship of any kind at any university – let alone a $50,000 scholarship at the LSE? Third class honours are virtually a fail. Even upper second class degrees will not get you a postgraduate position in many faculties at Australian universities. When I was involved in selecting graduates for employment somebody with a third would not even get an interview.

Funny, Minter Ellison didn't seem to think so. I guess a third class honour in creative writing or something similar may be considered close to a fail, but third class honours in Law at the University of Melbourne ain't no pushover. And then there is this:

The British public should be equally or more concerned that the British Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office with their Chevening scholarship are failing the people of Britain. Consider these facts. 1. Mummy is/was a British citizen and I believe has family in Britain. 2. Daddy was virtually an adopted Brit even to being a member of the British Young Conservatives. (Incidentally Radley College is a private school and not an Oxford Uni College, as the article implied). 3. Georgina has probably been to the UK more times than she can remember.

So he doesn't know the citizenship of her mother, he "believes" they have family in the UK, her father is an anglophile and Georgina has "probably" been to the UK more times than she can remember. What a well researched and fairly argued position to take.

The bottom line is that Alexander Downer annoys some people because of his background, family, education etc. This is a just another excuse to have a crack at him, using the success of one of his children as a convenient weapon.

There should ABSOLUTELY be an inquiry into this. A smug student with a 3rd class honors degree is suddenly given this scholarship. There should be a full inquiry in to the scholarship, the job at Minter Ellison, and any other relevant matters.
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Third class honours is a joke. All hons degrees may not be created equal, but a third from anywhere is an embarrassingly terrible result. Probably 5% of hons students do so badly. I received my hons degree in international relations from Australia's highest ranked uni, and very few students in my year received even lower seconds.
At Melbourne Uni the honours list is about 100-130 people (h1 to h3). Given there are about 400-500 melbourne uni students undertaking a bachelor of law every, third class honours is no where near the bottom 5%. The way honours are awarded in law degrees and other degrees even within the same uni is very different so I dont know how you can even compare it to something like public relations, even if you do claim it was from the top uni.

While it is true that it is questionable how she was awarded a scholarship to LSE, her employment at Minter Ellison is none of our business. They are a private firm and have the choice to employ whoever they want for whatever reason. Furthermore, it is a fact of the industry that your connections are what will get you far. I don't see why everyone is making such a big deal of it. Yes it's unfair but its a fact of life that some people get to where they are because of who they are and who they know. I say good for them for taking advantage of what theyre given. For the rest of us all we can do is work hard and try our best. Life isn't fair so stop whining.
Don't give me this "it's none of our business" rubbish. G. is being accelerated within a realm directly influenced by her father, and patently not through merit.

Following the Chevening and an intership in Washington with Senator Chuck Hagel, she's got a job in the Department of Foreign Affairs. She's done this with a Third Class Honours degree, which at Melbourne Uni is 65-69% - just above a pass, and below the University Medal, First Class Honours, Second Class Honours A and Second Class Honours B. Since Chevening requires candidates with "proven academic skills", and DFAT takes in only a select few each year, it is clear she is getting preferential treatment.

And since her father is the Foreign Minister of Australia, it's a matter of public importance.
You've accussed Crikey of being vague and poorly researched, but you're not too hot on research yourself. "I guess a third class honour in creative writing or something similar may be considered close to a fail, but third class honours in Law at the University of Melbourne ain't no pushover." That's just not true. It's quite easy to get Honours 2. Honours 3 is bottom of the heap stuff. According to publicly listed results, Georgina came 100th out of 120.

And I don't appreciate the creative writing slur either.

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