Americans debate US politics in Canberra

Members of the Australian Political Exchange Council Source: Jinyoung Lee Englund

As the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 US election campaign got underway, another discussion between US political leaders took place. Only this one was in the political heart of Australia.

Bringing United States politics to Canberra might seem like a strange concept, but the Australian Political Exchange Council has done exactly that.

Seven young US political leaders have gathered at the Australian National University (ANU) for a panel discussion on the 2016 US election.

The delegates were in Australia as part of a political-exchange program between the two countries.

At the event, hosted by the School of Politics and International Relations at ANU, was 31-year-old Raumesh Akbari, a Democratic member of the Tennessee General Assembly.

"We've been going around learning about different parts of Australia, learning about policy, learning about the political system,” Ms Akbari said.

“We're able to compare it to our system. It's been amazing, really a wide range of things we've learnt," Ms Akabari has also just been named to the leadership council for Tennessee in the Hillary Clinton campaign.

However, the US group included delegates from both Democratic and Republican parties.

Professor Simon Jackman, from ANU’s School of Politics and International Relations, moderated the discussion on the US election.

He said both parties see Australia and the United States as strong partners.

"Not only the formal things we all know about, the defence alliance, but also informal ties - cultural exchanges, a whole gamut of things that we're associated with United States, with trade, education - lots of things like that get discussed, Professor Jackman said.

“And they're really important events for that, because I think the next generation of political leaders come to understand how important the two countries are to one another."

Exchange of ideas

Jinyoung Lee Englund, a 31-year-old Republican, is vice president of a Strategy and Digital Currency Council and a member of technology policy working group for Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.

She said exchange events like the Australian Political Exchange Council prompt young leaders to think globally when it comes to developing and improving their domestic political systems.

“When you are limited to the country that you come from, you forget that different countries operate in different ways,” she said.

“And I think it's through these exchanges that we can, one, better understand people who are different from us or come from different countries and, two, we can actually glean best practice and ideas that may actually improve our own systems," Ms Englund said.

In 2014, Madison Coombs from the ANU, took part in an internship program in Washington, working in the US Congress.

She said she attended the discussion to refresh her knowledge of what has been happening in US politics since her return to Australia.

"It's refreshing to see the experience of both us having a different perspective on the American side and the Americans finding things in the Australian political system quite entertaining and funny," said Ms Coombs.

What do American’s make of the Australian political system?

One thing the delegates found particularly entertaining was parliamentary question time, a concept not practised in US politics.

Raumesh Akbari was not sure it would translate across the Pacific.

"It was pretty entertaining. It's rowdy. I don't know that we could transfer that to America without there being some sort of physical altercation, but you never know, Ms Akbari said.

“I thought it was pretty neat because it's an opportunity to kind of air your grievances;  kind of speak up for your district, and I'm sure the constituents like to see it."   

A local take on the 2016 US election

The forum comes at a pivotal time in US politics, with the hype around the 2016 election well underway.

The first Democratic debate took place this week, while Republican hopeful Donald Trump continues to make headlines with his surprise lead in Republican polls.

Ms Akbari said that makes the race very unpredictable.

"I anticipate that Hillary will win the nomination for the Democratic Party, but, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, I have no idea.

“It's such a toss-up, because, right now, Donald Trump is leading, and I just cannot imagine an America where Donald Trump was president."

Ms England, a Republican herself, agreed.  

"I think Trump is magnificent as an entertainer and he definitely is making the most of all the media appearances that he can. But in all reality, when people think of who they want as president, they think of who they want representing them, domestically and also internationally," said Ms Englund.  

Professor Jackman said forums like these are a reminder that not only between countries, but also across party lines, there is more in common than people may realise.

"It's very interesting, because, in these environments, I think sometimes there is much more co-operation and mutual understanding across partisan lines than you often get, say, in the parliament itself, or when people are campaigning," Professor Jackman said.

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