Far From Home

Australians Brave Snow, Strong Dollar for Internships

Posted January 24, 2003 at 2:25pm

Coming to Washington is always an adventure, but just imagine coming from the other side of the world. Five students from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have, braving the elements for a back-stage look at American politics.

“It’s just so bloody cold,” commented Grant Harvey-Mutton, who recently left high summer in Adelaide to intern in Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) office on the 4-year-old program arranged by former Democratic Hill aide Eric Federing.

Federing, who is now the director of business public policy and government affairs for KPMG, was motivated to start the program after traveling and lecturing in Australia. He runs the program on a pro bono basis with professor Don DeBats of Flinders’ American studies department.

“The idea is to put good people in good places with good people,” Federing says of his organizational philosophy. “[The students] learn stuff by being here that they couldn’t possibly know otherwise … and some have parlayed this experience into good jobs in the Australian government.”

Accompanying Harvey-Mutton are Joshua Balfour of Adelaide in Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s (D-N.Y.) office; Alison Cupper of Mildura in Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) office; Tamera Gale of Yacka in Rep. Alcee Hastings’ (D-Fla.) office; and Briony Whitehouse of Adelaide in Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) office. Their internships will last until Feb. 14, with a reception in their honor at the Australian Embassy on Feb. 5.

The program is as much about bridging the cultural gap between the United States and Australia as it is about politics, says Federing. Although the countries are very similar in some ways, he says what the Australians call “the tyranny of distance” encourages a mutual ignorance.

The students haven’t been here long — arriving on Christmas Day — but they already have interesting tidbits to share about the differences in political culture.

“I was surprised at how polite the Members are to each other [in the chamber],” said Balfour. Members of parliament in Australia are much more “irreverent” when they address one another, Federing explained, and their remarks are generally “less scripted.”

Gale said one of the most interesting things she has noticed is the seating arrangement on the House floor. In Australia the two main parties literally “face off” in opposing rows, so it was odd for her to see the Members all facing the Speaker.

Cupper, who studies law as well as international relations, said she was surprised to see how individualism manifests itself in U.S. culture and to observe the comparative weakness of organized labor movements. In Australia, one of the two main parties is called the Labor Party.

The program has garnered high praise from its start. In March 2000, after the first students left, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) submitted remarks for the Congressional Record praising the program and her intern, Estee Fiebiger, who, among other things, helped Sanchez’s office analyze human rights in Vietnam. Back in Australia, Fiebiger was inspired by her experience to start an internship program of her own in the Labor Party.

According to Federing, at least twice as many Congressional offices have expressed interest in hosting the interns than are available. He is considering expanding the program, but despite growing interest among Flinders students — in part because even domestic political internships are uncommon in Australia — few students actually qualify so far.

The students must major either in American studies or political science, but it’s the program’s cost that really narrows the field. The students’ airfare and housing is subsidized, but their out-of-pocket expenses add up to about 8,000 Australian dollars, which translates into $4,500 for the six-week program.

“Interns would be beating down your door,” Harvey-Mutton said, “if it weren’t for the cost.”