While he made no comment on the role WikiLeaks played in the US election when it released a trove of emails from the Democrat campaign, he said Mr Assange had to face British courts in response to the US extradition request relating to the separate espionage charges.
“All people are equal before the law. Julian Assange doesn’t get some dispensation from the law of the land, in this case of the UK, because you happen to agree with him or think he did the right thing,” Mr Downer said.
“If the United States wants to extradite him, and extradition proceedings are underway, Australia can’t [intervene] even if it wanted to. That is the thing about these emotional narratives – they don’t even make sense.”
US President Donald Trump has blamed a “witch-hunt” for trying to discredit his election in 2016 after special counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was “sweeping and systemic” interference by the Russian government in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr Trump’s Attorney-General, William Barr, has appointed John Durham to review the FBI investigation, including advice it received from Australian officials based on a diplomatic cable from Mr Downer in London.
“The Prime Minister has said that we would fully co-operate with that inquiry and of course I’m not a part of the government but to extend that a little bit, I’m fully co-operating with the Australian government,” Mr Downer said.
Mr Downer said he did not want to give a “running commentary” on the inquiry when asked at the National Press Club on Tuesday whether he had been interviewed by US investigators.
“If I’m not going to answer a question I always like to tell you why. It’s not because I don’t know the answers to these questions,” he said. “It is that we don’t want to play into the toxic politics of America and we don’t want to in any way through public commentary disrupt the investigation and inquiry.”
Mr Downer met Trump aide George Papadopoulos in a London bar in May 2016 where the aide told him the Russians were willing to release dirt on Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton ahead of the November election. Mr Downer reported that meeting to Australian intelligence services, who later shared it with the FBI.
Asked if it would be normal for Australia to share a diplomatic cable, Mr Downer said Australia had a cable-sharing arrangement with the UK but did not know if the same applied with the US. Australia had told the Barr inquiry “we would co-operate with them and be as helpful as we can be”, he said.
Mr Downer also dismissed questions about whether he told the Department of Foreign Affairs beforehand of his intention to brief US diplomats in London about his conversation with Mr Papadopoulos.
“I’m not going to answer the question for the reason I’ve given. And I’m not sure you bother with it,” he said.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.