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Cultural cringe: the media sure love a ‘junket’

The mainstream media in Australia love to highlight our politicians’ travels abroad as though they’ve uncovered corruption.

I was interested by a report in Fairfax Media on October 12 about the Victorian Speaker of the House, Telmo Languiler’s travels to Latin America and Asia.

The report reflected a form of cultural cringe disguised as concern for taxpayers’ money.

“Victorian speaker Telmo Languiller spent more than $50,000 on overseas travel last financial year – including two separate taxpayer-funded trips to his country of birth, Uruguay,” it reported.

Telmo Languiler, the first Uruguayan-heritage Speaker of the House, travelled to Uruguay, Cuba and Argentina. In Uruguay he met with the Vice President of Uruguay at a “total cost of $12,676.”

Surely $13,000 for travel to Latin America, if it includes accommodation, daily expenses, meetings and airfare is not excessive?

Languiler is a senior politician and if the investment in his travels facilitates Victoria’s economic and cultural interests in Latin America – a growing market for our services and goods – then that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

The Fairfax Media report’s emphasis on the Speaker of the House having a “tax-payer-funded trip to his country of birth” was intriguing.

Latin America is important to our economy and culture, so surely a Uruguayan- Australian politician can play a key role as a conduit between the State and Latin America. Languiler understands the psyche of Latin Americans and their way of doing business. As an Australian he can use his linguistic and cultural skills to represent our interests across the Spanish speaking continent and Caribbean.

Engaging culturally diverse Members of Parliament to promote Australian interests internationally is a key to our economic and creative diversity. Latin America’s role in Victorian trade was highlighted in a recent Victoria Government release: “Trade between Victoria and Latin America generally has more than doubled in the past ten years with a substantial increase of 25 per cent in the last four years alone.”

I would rather have my politicians learning from overseas examples, promoting cultural exchange and creating trade opportunities, than have them spouting anti-internationalist jingoism.

When an Australian medical specialist who works for a publicly funded hospital attends an international conference we regard his as building knowledge from international research on diseases and health issues.

When publicly funded arts workers attend an international forum it is a great thing for Australia’s cultural trade and learning.

We have financial and marketing support from Federal and State Governments for business trade delegations. The Victorian State Government under both the Coalition and Labor parties host trade delegations to Asia and other target areas at the expense of the taxpayer. These investments result in jobs, innovation, creative and intellectual exchanges.

From my brief moment as a political advisor in the Baillieu Government I remember the fear at any suggestion we should tell media when a politician was travelling overseas. In 2011 a group of Hellenic Parliamentarians from Government and Opposition were invited to attend the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Association forum in Athens.

Victoria was not footing the bill, the Greek Government paid for it. The Melbourne Herald Sun ran the headline: “Greece is the word for Junket MPs” and condemned  Victorian politicians for putting pressure on Greece’s ailing economy.

The convention was important given more Hellenes live outside Greece than in. Hellenic politicians from across the globe would be looking for solutions for Greece and solutions that benefited their nations.

Hellenic members of Parliament were to meet their counterparts from Canada, USA, South Africa and Brazil to build cooperation which would hopefully result in economic and cultural outcomes.

The Herald Sun attack limited our ability to promote the importance of the trip to the electorate, and forced some politicians to withdraw from it.

The President of the Association and former Victorian Tourism Minister, John Pandazopoulos said: “The cost of democracy is having to spend money. This is about politician-to-politician relationships. At the end of the day, politicians drive public policy. The idea is about knowledge building, politicians having to talk to each other, not just government bureaucracy to government bureaucracy.”

Our open, and mostly fair, liberal democracy and our strong economy allows us to engage with and learn from the rest of the world. Our cultural diversity has opened new economic, cultural paths around the world. We deal well with Asia, we have deep links with Europe, we are English speakers and share the same, or similar, political structures as South Africa, the USA, Great Britain and Canada. So why are we so intent on making our politicians less effective in representing our interests and us internationally?

Palacio Legislativo, Montevideo, Uruguay.

One response to “Cultural cringe: the media sure love a ‘junket’

  1. Excellent reasoning. In fact most trade outside the Anglo-sphere is due to people who hail originally from those other-linguistic/cultural zones. But then again my Anglo-Aussie ancestors were already trading over 200 years ago from Calcutta to Canton and all points in between and out into the Pacific – Tahiti and Fiji included. I find it interesting that South Australia with its colonial era German roots sources much infrastructure thinking from Germany. More writing on this subject, please, Fotis!

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