Delegation Ends – the good, the bad and the verdict.

It feels a little bit like I’ve been transported to an alternative universe for the last couple of weeks, where the very immediate and important arguments in Australia are distant and faint and the political disagreements between us are put on hold (mostly) and I got immersed in a continual stream of new and different things (some of which remind me that what’s happening in Australia is a bit minor in the wider scheme of things). Now I’m being transported back to my normal universe, where I expect things will pick up as though I had never been away.

I’m loathe to sound off like I’m an expert on the basis of a few days’ experience, but here are a few impressions and judgements anyway, for what they are worth:

– It’s very important that Turkey is supported in its efforts to become a full member of the EU. Whilst this needs to take a bit of time so it is done properly and so people on all sides can become more accommodated to some of the ramifications, it will be very damaging if this process is made unnecessarily hard for Turkey. Turkey undoubtedly still has some problems with human rights and freedom of speech, and like many countries could probably do with loosening itself a little bit from the binds of its history (unlike Australia which first needs to acknowledge more of its history before it can move on from it), but preparing for EU entry will assist them a lot in doing this. I believe EU membership for Turkey will also be a big help to the rest of Europe (and the rest of the democratic world). It can only be good for us and them to have such a major political linkage with a populous, developing, democratic secular country, which also serves as a big bridge into much of the Islamic world.

– Australia should provide more direct financial assistance to help with the infrastructure and overall management of the peace park on the Gallipoli Peninsula (and perhaps even some of the surrounding towns). This will always be Turkish soil and thus in the end always a matter for them to determine what happens there, but in many ways the area is as important to the Turks as it is to Australia, and they certainly have just as much desire to protect, preserve and properly present the area. Extra finances would help make this happen and obviously give us more scope to provide opinions. Our country does have some expertise at managing large numbers of tourists through sensitive areas, which may also prove to be helpful. This is very different to just the traditional activity of managing war graves, which is perhaps why Australia’s Veterans Affairs department made something of a hash of our role in the way we pushed for the road widening at Anzac Cove.

– While the economy of Ireland has performed amazingly well- ‘Celtic tiger’ is the widely used cliché – I still have this feeling they are at risk of being hit with some increasing socio-economic divisions in a decade or so. Having been driven through a few different parts of rural Ireland, it is wonderful that so many of their towns still have such a distinct local, country town feel, with narrow laneways and quaint shops along the main street. However, I can’t help feeling as the economy (and suburban Dublin) continues to grow that those that get on the bandwagon of ‘new’ industries will leave ‘old’ Ireland behind. The infrastructure challenges of the country are formidable (in some ways symbolised by those quaint but seriously narrow country lanes that now have to serve as arterial roads), and addressing that in an equitable way across the whole population will be difficult. Still, there does at least seem to be some recognition about the need to invest decent amounts of public money in education and innovation, which is more than can be said for Australia.

– The decommissioning of arms by the IRA and the Northern Ireland peace process in general will affect Irish politics in far reaching ways. Whilst the peace process must move at its own pace, the north of Ireland is now starting to fall behind the rest of the island economically, which is the reverse of how it used to be. Apart from the various other tensions that will occur when partition finally ends in Ireland, it’s possible the situation will have a lot of parallels (on a smaller scale) with what has happened with German reunification. The economic differences will be one aspect, but the different political culture may have an even bigger impact. The Sinn Fein party now has five members in the Irish Parliament and is currently expected to add to that at the next election. I found it interesting that virtually everyone I spoke to (apart from Sinn Fein people) from across the political spectrum – including informal conversations and chats with many people who weren’t politicians – were fairly scathing about Sinn Fein. It wasn’t just that they are a political threat (although there was undoubtedly a bit of that with some of the MPs), but that they were seen as crooks at worst, or at best unfairly helped by access to loads of money from abroad. I can’t pass judgement on that aspect of Sinn Fein, and it may be that their underlying policy thrust may turn out to be too left wing for the general population, but I can’t help wondering if they will bring a new degree of party and political discipline which is much stronger than the what has been the norm in Irish politics. There is a definitely a growing degree of concerted on the ground activity and activism by Sinn Fein members in some parts of the country, and if they do manage to get a good combination going of organisational professionalism, committed active membership and stacks of dough, they might rock the system a bit. I think they probably will be too doctrinaire-left wing to move into major party status, but the other parties may be forced to change the way they operate and portray themselves to counter them. There is a startling lack of philosophical delineation between the major Irish political parties. As far as I can tell, this is because they are defined by history stemming out of the Irish civil war rather than any clear philosophical dividing lines. Whilst I dislike doctrinaire adherence to a single ideology or any form of political fundamentalism, I believe if there’s a lack of clear philosophical guiding principles, you end up over time with not much more than managerialism at best, inevitably leading over time to corporatist soft-corruption and worse if any one group is in power too long. The advent of functional self-rule in the north of Ireland will free the two major parties from some of the binds of history, which would be a good thing, but I think may also have to mean they will have to identify themselves more clearly with specific philosophies. It may even create enough of a sea-change that some of the smaller parties (such as the Labour Party and maybe also the Progressive Democrats or Greens) which have clearer philosophies but don’t have the same benefits of incumbency and history might make a break through. I doubt anyone knows how it will pan out, but I think it might generate a sizable shake-up one way or another (which would probably be a good thing).

– Sometimes I was surprised that our delegation group with 3 Liberal, 2 Labor (one left faction and one right) and a Democrat travelled together for two weeks, almost constantly in each others company and discussing politically related issues a lot of the time, yet we didn’t get into any unpleasant fights or disagreements. The people I was with were all nice enough folks, but it’s a bit strange having pleasant and occasionally even productive conversations with people and then remembering that in a few weeks time the same people are going to willingly vote in favour of legislation that’s going to shoot a big hole right through the guts of democracy. While one shouldn’t personalise things, some of the legislation these people have and will support, and the processes they are allowing along the way, are truly terrible and will hurt some people badly – there’s no point snarling at people about it while you’re travelling together, but it’s still a bit weird.

– This trip made me feel quite strongly that Australia should change our flag. This debate has slipped off the agenda in Australia because people have focused on whether (and how) we should become a Republic. However, it is a country’s flag that people from other countries usually see, not whether or not they are a constitutional Monarchy. When you know very little about another country (which applies to most people from other partys of the world in regards to Australia), the impression given by a flag has a lot more impact. We should change ours, in the same way Canada did some time ago.

Best moments:
– Undoubtedly the visit to Gallipoli. Even if the road widening is less than ideal, it is a small blemish in an enormous area – both geographically and historically. The experience has grown on me more since my visit and I wish we could have spent more time there.

– The 5200 year old grave at Newgrange was cool, as was the stone round tower near Kilkenny dating from around 800AD.

– After lots of useful but sometimes surface-skimming meetings and discussions about politics, it was very refreshing at the meeting with the Irish Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committeeto hear the Irish Labour MP querying Australia’s lack of acknowledgement of our indigenous people (and our sensitivity about the issue), and indeed the human rights focus of many of the other members of that Committee from other parties at that meeting too.

– The Irish people really are extremely welcoming and their fixation with what town and County everyone is from is very endearing (although I expect the inherent parochialism attached to this could get very frustrating). The steady flow of people around all parts of the world is on balance a great thing, but the loss of a sense of place that can accompany this is a problem. The Irish are still hanging on that very well (so far). They also showed a seemingly genuine extra delight that we had Ursula Stephens in our delegation as an Irish born person, elected to the Australian Parliament and now returning ‘home’. Mind you, while Ursula’s politics may or may not be my cup of tea, she has the sort of Irish smiling eyes they probably based the song on, and she gave a thank you speech at our final dinner in Gaelic, which was pretty impressive (it’s a nice sounding language too, even if it’s pronunciation seems even more incomprehensible than most)

Not so good moments:
– Heathrow airport. Even worse on the way back than on the way in. If I ever travel to England in the future, I must try to fly into the country through Manchester or somewhere else. What a shambolic joke.

– I have to say the poverty and ugliness of the housing in much of Ankara was a bit hard to ignore, although I did see more beggars on the streets of Dublin.

– A bit more scope to meet with non-government organisations and smaller parties would have been good. We were there as guests of foreign governments, so one can’t be too fussy, but I think a bit more breadth would be helpful.

– I’m happy we flogged the Irish in the International Rules football match (the return game of which will be played while I am in an aeroplane, as was the first one), but if I heard one more Irish person in our meetings mention that they “didn’t want to mention the football” I was going to scream. I mean, I love me footy mate, you know, and I kinda like the way sport can be an international language, but couldn’t at least one of them tease us about our less democratic electoral system, or our higher rates of unemployment or skin cancer or something, rather than always use the bloody footy as a point of reference!

Whilst there were aspects to the trip which I’m sure could be selectively grabbed by the media to make the whole think look like an outrageous junket (which is why I’ve left a few bits out of my various postings which would have helped create a fuller picture for readers of what happens on a parliamentary delegation), overall it was certainly valuable – which isn’t to say that the value of it couldn’t have been higher. Whilst we got given plenty of background information about the countries we were travelling to, it would be useful to have a induction session of a few solid hours not long after arriving in a place (after the jetlag had faded). It would be good to get a chance to ask all the stupid questions you want to ask about the country’s history, society, political system, etc but you don’t because you don’t want to offend or look stupid. We got some of this type of ‘immersion’ before we left and also got a good but brief briefing in Turkey, but not much in Ireland. Maybe it’s assumed Australians know all about Irish history and politics, but despite my strong Irish background and having read a few things about it, I was embarrassed to discover how little I really knew. History shapes politics in a big way (something we don’t really acknowledge enough in Australia), so a fuller background would add a lot of value.

I’ve been very privileged to have this opportunity – not just to travel, but to meet some people one wouldn’t normally get to meet. So while the 27 hours worth of plane travel and airport terminals to finish it all off is not much fun, I can’t complain. It will be great to be home though, even if it’s only for a day before I have to head down to Parliament House in Canberra again. I haven’t been homesick per se, but I’ve missed seeing my little girl a lot. There are some big chunks of time I’ve been away from her lately, and a few more to come before the end of the year, which is chewing away at me a bit.

As I wrote before I left, I’ve not been on a full length overseas delegation before. I know overseas travel can be immensely valuable, but I also know some of these trips are not much better than junkets. So, my verdict? Definitely worthwhile, although certainly room for improvement.

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