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Downer was born in Adelaide, South Australia, into one of the state's oldest families (irreverently known as Old Adelaide Families or OAFs). His father, Sir Alexander "Alec" Downer, was a member of the Australian Parliament 1949-1964 and later High Commissioner in London. His grandfather, Sir John Downer , was a Senator in the first federal Parliament in 1901. His mother, Mary Downer nee Gosse, is descended from early immigrants to South Australia.
Downer was educated at an exclusive Adelaide school and at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Britain. He entered the Australian Diplomatic Service, where he served until 1982. He then worked as an advisor to the Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. In 1984 he was elected to the federal Parliament as Liberal member for Mayo, in the suburbs of Adelaide.
The Liberals were in opposition fron 1983 to 1996, and Downer held a number of positions on the Opposition front bench from 1987 onwards. Despite what some felt to be his aloof and patronising air, he was an effective debater, and in 1993 he became Shadow Treasurer (Opposition finance spokesperson). When the Liberals unexpectedly lost the 1993 elections to Paul Keating, Downer began to be talked of as a possible leader, and in May 1994 he was elected Leader of the Opposition after the resignation of Dr John Hewson.
However, Downer struggled against Keating's parliamentary tactics, and he never shook off Keating's jibe that he was "the idiot son of the aristocracy". Many Australians found his anglicised diction unattractive, and he made a series of tactical errors which Keating ruthlessly exploited. The worst of those blunders was his telling a joke at a formal dinner in which he was promoting the Liberal party slogan 'the things that matter' and referring to wife-bashing husbands as 'the things that batter.' Opinion polls began to show that the Liberals were going backwards under his leadership. In January 1995 he resigned as Leader, and John Howard was elected to replace him.
When Howard won the March 1996 elections, he made Downer Minister for Foreign Affairs. After a shaky start, Downer performed effectively in the role. He was greatly helped by the changed international situation after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, which caused a majority of Australians to support the Howard Government's policy of close alliance with the US. Downer's major recent challenge has been handling relations with Australia's most important neighbour, Indonesia. On 20 December, 2004, Downer became the longest serving Foreign Minister of Australia.
See also: Politics of Australia
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