Interns get a front row seat at US democracy

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Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop with the interns in Washington.

Visitors to the US Capitol in Washington during January and February might just find their tour guide speaking with an Australian accent.

Taking constituents on tours is one of the myriad of duties being undertaken by Flinders University’s seven Washington interns, who are currently ensconced in political offices on Capitol Hill.

The Washington Internship Program has been run by the American Studies Department at Flinders since 2000, and this year sees the 89th Flinders student undertake the seven-week placement in the US capital. The present group includes Jesse Barker Gale, who was an intern three years ago, and now returns to further his PhD.

In addition to their roles in the offices, each of the students is working on a 7,000-word research paper dealing with topics and issues that range from discrimination against sexual minorities, the Republican Party response to abortion, the recognition of Cuba, the Tea Party, and the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The Head of American Studies, Professor Don DeBats, says the interns are also getting the chance to witness the latest twists of US national politics unfold at very close range as the Republican Party takes up its newly won majority in the Senate.

The TPP is proving particularly topical: Professor DeBats said that the progress being made by President Obama in negotiating the treaty has been made possible, ironically, by the election of a “hostile” Congress that overcomes opposition from pockets of his own party.

Professor DeBats said that although the Obama presidency has seen a level of “hyper-partisanship”, the capacity for a bi-partisan approach remains vital to US politics.

“The US system really does need people to work across party lines: if everyone just voted their party position, nothing would happen,” he said.

Professor DeBats said that occupying political offices of different colourations provides the Flinders interns with very different perspectives on the US political process and the negotiations that go with it.

“They are seeing up close what it means to have a legislature that really legislates, rather than just following the executive,” he said.

“It’s a case of what the students have talked about in academic discussions being played out right in front of them.”

As part of the program, the interns also attended an Australian Embassy reception held in their honour, where they were joined by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

“She was very generous with her time,” Professor DeBats said.

Funding assistance for the interns came from the Commonwealth Department of Education’s Study Overseas Short-term Mobility Program (STMP).

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