Sir John Downer was born in 1843 in Adelaide. He became a lawyer and high profile South Australian politician. In 1878, he became a QC as well as entering the South Australian House of Assembly as a member for Barossa, which he represented until 1901.
By the Sydney Convention of 1891 he was one of the leading conservative spokesmen on federation matters. His interest was the future Upper House's role as a States' house: Downer supported those who wanted a powerful Senate similar to that of the US.
The principle of responsible government was not to overrule States' rights. He opposed viewing the Senate as being like existing Legislative Councils or the House of Lords, and waned to ensure that it attracted the best intellects, by offering its members a sense of authority and power.
At the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897 in Adelaide, Downer was a member of the constitutional and drafting committees, some of the work of which was done in his house where Edmund Barton was staying. Downer wished to preserve the clauses of the 1891 Bill relating to appeals to the Privy Council. He argued that the Constitution should let the new nation manage its own judicial affairs. When these clauses were whittled away, he questioned whether the delegates “would ever get out of swaddling clothes”.
In reply, Simon Fraser quipped that they were not there to “cut the painter” with Great Britain. Sir John replied: “We have come to the conclusion that we may cease to be provincial, and form the foundation of a nation. We do not propose in any way to separate from the British Crown, in fact we look to it with reverence. We consider ourselves the same people, but the very essence of the difference is that we think that we can make laws which will suffice us; in other words, to put it colloquially, we think we can manage our own affairs.”
In the elections for the first Commonwealth parliament, Downer was returned as one of the six South Australian senators.
He was so interested in the constitutional position of the Senate, that one colleague remarked that Downer reminded him of the gentleman who under all circumstances would drag King Charles's head into the discussion. While Downer doggedly defended the Senate's constitutional rights—and he believed those rights extended to the removal of governments—he was also a firm believer in the importance of convention.
He fought a move in the Senate to delay passage of a Supply Bill: “In every constitutionally governed State the practice has been to pass Supply Bills practically as a matter of course', and during the controversy over Lord Hopetoun's resignation he again cited convention when he pleaded that 'It is a well understood principle of constitutional government that it is undesirable for the Governor General to take an active part in debatable politics'.
Downer was a politician of strange contrasts. He often took up positions which, at least for a self-styled nineteenth-century conservative, did not quite fit this image: witness his promoting women's rights and his opposition to appeals to the Privy Council. His abhorrence of jingoistic racism was a rare virtue in the first Commonwealth parliament. Despite his affectionate loyalty to the British Crown and England, he devoted much time to creating an independent Australia
Alfred Deakin described him as “bull-headed, and rather thick-necked…with the dogged set of the mouth of a prize fighter and smallish eyes”. But he found him to be suave, clear and effective and believed that only “reserve and indolence” had prevented him from playing a far greater part in the Federal movement.
Sir John died in 1915. The suburb of Downer in Canberra is named after him.