Heading to London: Alexander Downer. Photo: Tomasz MachnikFederal politics: full coverage
Former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer is set to be named high commissioner to London in a move that would cut short the term of the Labor appointee Mike Rann.
The move is understood to be Mr Downer’s second preference after he lobbied hard to get the Washington posting but was rebuffed.
A source said Mr Downer’s links to the Republican side in the US capital were extensive but he was not so well-connected to the Democratic Party.
Fairfax Media has learnt the Abbott government has decided on the controversial switch with Mr Rann but, aware of the sensitivities, is not planning to announce the change until after the state election in South Australia on March 15.
The aggressive move would cut short Mr Rann’s three-year tenure, making his the second case of a former Labor premier being dumped for a former Howard government minister in a plum diplomatic posting.
But the news is not all bad for Mr Rann because he is likely to be moved to Rome as Australia’s ambassador there.
Mr Rann’s wife, Sasha Carrouzzo is of Italian extraction and it was known that Mr Rann had been keen for the Rome posting before his London job was announced.
Mr Rann is a former 17-year parliamentary leader of the ALP in South Australia and was premier from 2002 to 2011. He was also national president of the ALP in 2008.
Victoria’s erstwhile Labor premier Steve Bracks was blocked on the eve of his departure for the consul-general post in New York, shortly after the Coalition came to power last year.
He has since been replaced by the former Howard finance minister Nick Minchin in a move criticised as jobs for the boys. He is yet to take up the post.
Both South Australians, Mr Minchin and Mr Downer were conservative lions of the Howard cabinet and remain highly influential figures in the Liberal Party.
John Howard himself has also been the subject of speculation in relation to the Washington post, which is now held by former Labor leader Kim Beazley. Mr Beazley’s term was recently extended.
Other Howard-era figures have been appointed to government jobs, including Amanda Vanstone, who is engaged on the Audit Commission, and dumped Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, who was appointed to the Australian Submarine Corporation.
Labor MPs are likely to be furious at the treatment of Mr Rann after the Rudd government elected to leave Ms Vanstone in Rome and the former Nationals leader Tim Fischer was appointed as ambassador to the Holy See at the Vatican in 2008. Former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson was also appointed by the Rudd government as Australia’s first ambassador to NATO in 2009.
Mr Downer’s appointment follows his recent conclusion of a post as chief United Nations envoy to Cyprus – a post he has held for five years. Persistent speculation has surrounded his next move, with the Washington slot regarded as his clear preference.
In a recent interview with Fairfax Media, he was typically vague: ”If any of those jobs came my way, I’d make a decision, but it would mean giving up my other jobs,” Mr Downer said of the London and Washington options.
Fairfax Media has been told Mr Downer has been lobbying hard for one of the roles despite claiming he intended to focus on his home state of South Australia, where he holds the state presidency of his party.
Mr Rann was appointed by the previous Labor government and took up his post in London in December 2012.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop scotched Mr Bracks’ post almost as her first decision.
Liberal sources at the time acknowledged the soundness of appointing Mr Bracks, but criticised the outgoing Labor government for making a political appointment which did not even take effect before the election of that year.
Mr Downer’s appointment would see him return to the city of his youth in a role previously occupied by his father, Sir Alexander, who held the post from 1963 to 1972.
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