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Downer sniffed a bargain when playboy prince had to offload some boys' toys

Date

Linton Besser

Australia's foreign minister had his eye on a luxury car in the vast collection of a sultan's wayward brother.

Former minister Alexander Downer is a self-confessed petrol head.

Former minister Alexander Downer is a self-confessed petrol head.

In early 2007, as Kevin Rudd steamrolled the ALP towards government, Alexander Downer might have known that his years as foreign minister were coming to an end. The polls were telling him that by year's end he would return to suburban life in Adelaide after an extraordinary 11 years of jetting around the globe and mixing it with some of the world's most powerful - and most wealthy - people.

In Brunei, Downer's counterparts were both of these things. Brunei's vast oil reserves made it's Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, the world's richest man in the 1980s, worth an estimated $40 billion. During Downer's tenure, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the true extent of the wealth of the Sultan's family was becoming uncomfortably public courtesy of an extraordinary royal scandal.

During a long period as finance minister, the Sultan's younger brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, spent $14.8 billion to fund the ultimate playboy existence. A merry-go-round of excess and debauchery, his lifestyle was estimated to cost $50 million a month.

Object of desire ... a Mercedes Benz 1993 600SL Roadster.

Object of desire ... a Mercedes Benz 1993 600SL Roadster.

Jefri was a collector. He collected hotels, including the Dorchester in London and the Bel-Air in Los Angeles. He collected executive aircraft, art and jewellery - including five individual diamonds worth a combined $200 million. His palace had a life-size statue of himself at its entrance holding a solid-gold polo mallet.

Sex was a theme. He named one of his yachts Tits (its dinghies were Nipple 1 and Nipple 2) and spent $8 million on 10 bejewelled wristwatches that on each hour depicted a couple fornicating. A former Miss USA, Shannon Marketic, alleged she had been among scores of women recruited to dance in a vast nightclub Jefri had built inside his palace.

These details came to light during the term of Downer's office because the Sultan had finally cracked down on his wayward brother. By 2007, multiple court actions had forced the collapse of Jefri's Amedeo Corporation, and authorities had by then spent several years trying to liquidate his assets.

Prince Jefri of Brunei.

Prince Jefri of Brunei. Photo: Reuters

Downer told the Herald they never met. But they did share one passion: cars. Downer is an unabashed petrolhead. An avid fan of the V8s, he drives a modified racing car that he owns with a friend.

Jefri, of course, indulged the hobby on a much grander scale. Besides racing Ferraris with his brother through the streets of the capital at midnight, the prince also had potentially the world's most extravagant collection of cars. Many of the 2300 Bentleys, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces had ''His Royal Highness Prince Jefri'' inscribed in the panelling along the driver's door.

Downer and his staff were kept abreast of the unfolding scandal by Foreign Affairs staff in Brunei, but he also maintained a personal relationship with Pehin Lim, Brunei's deputy foreign minister.

So, on March 1, 2007, it probably didn't surprise the Brunei high commissioner, Ruth Adler, to hear that Lim and Downer had recently been talking between themselves; but she was surprised to hear what they discussed, notarising the conversation in an email to Downer's senior adviser, Andrew Goledzinowski.

''Further to our conversation of yesterday, Pehin Lim … rang me yesterday to say that he had recently had a conversation with Mr Downer in which the latter reportedly indicated a possible interest in purchasing a sports car. Pehin Lim told the minister he would send him a list of cars that were available for sale.

"The cars originally formed part of the assets of the Amedeo Corporation, which collapsed in the late 1990s and are now available for sale by tender.'' She attached to the email a spreadsheet of 67 Mercedes-Benzes.

The next week was busy for Downer, as he prepared to fly to nearby Indonesia for counterterrorism talks. Then on March 7, Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 crashed at Yogyakarta. Among the 22 killed were several Australian officials and the Australian Financial Review correspondent Morgan Mellish. Mellish, and Cynthia Banham, a reporter with the Herald, were following Downer to the talks. Banham was critically injured but survived.

At 10.45am on March 16, the day it emerged the pilot may have been culpable, Goledzinowski phoned a high commission official in Brunei to issue his boss's instructions regarding the Mercedes.

The official relayed to Adler that Downer "is interested in the 1993 600SL Roadster", a V12 German luxury car. The Bruneian government was selling 21 of them, in black, blue, purple, red or silver, and had valued the vehicles at $BND66,400 each (about $55,540 at the time).

"Minister Downer thought the price was a little high," the email notes. "AG [Goledzinowski] asked if we could contact the Minister here and ask 'how much would it cost to have that car?' AG said that the Minister felt approx. AUD20,000 was a fair price but not to raise that with the Bruneians unless specifically asked.''

Goledzinowski, now a senior DFAT official, also asked that they investigate what it might cost to ship the vehicle to Australia (someone immediately began ringing around for quotes), and ''also asked if we would liaise with Customs Australia''.

But there were concerns among the staff at the high commission about the whole affair.

"In reply to my question re any concerns by Minister Downer about purchasing a vehicle prior to an auction AG advised this was being treated in the same manner as the sale of a house which can be put up for auction but may be sold by private arrangement before hand," the email said.

Later, Adler sent a long email to the department's corporate management division (CMD), alerting them to Downer's activities. It was "the only issue I can think of which CMD should possibly be aware [of]".

"Both Pehin Lim and Dr Amin Liew, the head of the Brunei Investment Agency, have contacted me in relation to Mr Downer's possible interest in purchasing a car, and have sent me several documents in relation to the available cars. As a courtesy, I have forwarded these to Andrew to pass to the minister for his consideration and, at Andrew's request, sourced information on the cost of shipping a vehicle back to Australia."

She wrote that since the flurry of correspondence she had not heard from Downer and had not pursued the matter. "I do not consider that it would be appropriate for me as HOM [Head of Mission] to act on Mr Downer's behalf in relation to the possible private purchase of a vehicle."

Downer answered the Herald's questions via text message. He said he did not follow through with the purchase because Adler was right about her concerns: ''I agreed with that.''

The Herald asked him to clarify. ''You are saying you accept that your actions in having her and her staff act as intermediaries between you and Pehin Lim was inappropriate? Was that why you stopped the process [of buying the car]?''

Downer wrote back a one-word text: ''Yes.''

As it turned out, life after politics was not as mundane as Downer might have feared. He was appointed the United Nations secretary-general's special adviser on Cyprus in July 2008 and he answered the Herald's questions while between meetings in Brussels.

In fact, it is his fellow car-lover Prince Jefri whose life has been more radically changed. He now lives on the royal pension, a mere $20,000 a month. And worst of all, the toys are gone too - even the 600SL Roadster.

Do you know more? investigations@smh.com.au

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