“I told them I would pay for them to go to any university that they could get into, but that after that, they were getting nothing.”
US Congressman Jim McDermott leans back slightly in his chair on the 11th floor of the Flinders University building in Adelaide’s CBD as he shares a bit of the tough love he has for his children.
“I also made them work every summer in jobs that they didn’t like, and give me US$1,000 at the end of it, so they would know what it’s like to have to stick at something.
“I did it because I don’t want them to be ground down – because I want them to make it. I know I can do it because I started with nothing; but they’ve had it a bit easier than me.”
It’s his first time in South Australia, and he’s just come from a meeting with Premier Jay Weatherill, following a lunch with Flinders University Pro-Vice Chancellor (International) Professor Nancy Cromar and Flinders Medical Device Research Institute Director Professor Karen Reynolds.
Read on paper, some of his words might appear harsh, but in the flesh, his tone is even, thoughtful and reflective. He also watches closely as he talks, belying any notion that his main audience might be himself.
“Some people spend their lives waiting by the grave,” he adds. “I don’t want that for my children.”
Mr McDermott is the Representative for Washington’s 7th District, which includes most of Seattle, and one of the most influential Democratic Party politicians of his generation, hailed or vilified (depending on who you ask) for his, occasionally very public, battles with Republican Party heavyweights like Newt Gingrich and John Boehner.
That he has been re-elected time and again since 1988 with three quarters of the vote in his own District, proves one thing – that those who know him best are firmly in the ‘hail’ category.
While consistent success in Congress may require canny political skills, the kind of loyalty that Mr McDermott enjoys within his District can only be earned through relationships with real people, and it’s in building relationships that one senses he truly excels.
The evidence is sitting right next to him in the form of Flinders University PhD candidate, Jesse Barker Gale, who first met Mr McDermott as a fresh faced participant in Flinders University’s Washington Internship Program in 2012.
It’s as a direct result of that relationship that the Congressman has taken the time out of his busy schedule to visit Adelaide – and he has great things to say about the capital of South Australia.
“I had heard of Adelaide, but didn’t really know anything about it. It’s like Seattle. It’s 55 degrees (F) the sun is shining, and the people are nice,” he says.
He likes it so much, in fact, that he even says he could live here – and he also has good things to say about its free settled ‘immigrant stock’.
“I found out that South Australia was free settled state, which I didn’t know before,” he says.
“That’s really important because it means you have good immigrant stock.
“To be an immigrant, you need to have reached a point where you decided you don’t like where you are and that you will go somewhere else and start over again.
“That means you bring with you a mentality and an energy that does not allow for giving up or going back – and that you refuse to be ground down.”
They are the kind of values that he believes will help South Australia overcome its current economic difficulties and complete a similar economic transformation to the one that has made Seattle a boom town for medical devices and advanced manufacturing.
“It’s because South Australians, as free immigrants, have those values, that I’m confident that they won’t give up.”
Asked if he has one specific piece of advice for SA as it seeks to emulate Seattle’s own transformation, he homes in on an issue close to many South Australians’ hearts.
“Get the transport system right,” says Mr McDermott. “We had an opportunity years ago to implement a great transport system in Seattle that would’ve set us up for the development that has happened since, and we didn’t take it.
“Now we’re trying to put in place what we should have done then, and the result is that we’ve had this huge digger called ‘Big Bertha’, broke down and stuck under the city since 2013.
“It’s cost about a billion dollars trying to fix it.”
Fittingly, given that his visit to South Australia has been facilitated by one of Adelaide’s successful and well educated young people, he advises local businesses and industry to take advantage of the kinds of skills and experience possessed by Jesse Barker Gale.
“Invest in those people who have taken the trouble to go and live in and experience other places and other things,” says Mr McDermott.
“I’ve lived in the Congo, and Zaire, and other places, and I know from first-hand experience that it gives you an advantage because it lets you see how the world really works.
“Those are the kinds of people with the kinds of values that you want to invest in.
“They’re the kinds of values I want for my own children.”