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Guest Commentary

Iowa and Aussies share language, culture and problems

2/13/2013

Three weeks in Australia — visiting one of our daughters — offered a respite from the Iowa winter, but not from Iowa issues.                

Reading Australian newspapers was like reading newspapers in Iowa. It wasn’t that international crises — like those in Syria, Israel and Algeria — dominated the news, but rather that local or state concerns in, say, Melbourne or Perth were like those in Des Moines.                

For example, The Des Moines Register has been running a lot of articles about the need to reform the juvenile justice system in Iowa. Similar concerns vex the folks Down Under.                

The Australian, a national newspaper, had a story about juvenile justice, quoting Northern Territory Chief Magistrate Hilary Hannam: “It’s a non-system that’s collapsing or broken… There’s no one agency responsible for youth justice… There’s a real paucity of people with the right expertise,” and kids in trouble suffer as a result.               

You could have lifted that right out of the Register.                

High on the agenda of the Iowa governor and legislature is education reform in terms of attracting better teachers and improving student classroom performance.                

A headline in Melbourne’s The Age reported “Teacher Entry Ranking Tumbles” over a story about how college admission standards for teacher education had dropped despite government reform efforts. Other stories were on how Australian students should be held accountable for being able to read and count before moving beyond certain grade levels.                

Those in Iowa who say government services are mis-directed would sympathize with Margaret Guthrie, chair of the Public Tenants Association in the state of Victoria. When it comes to government aid, she said in the Melbourne Herald Sun, “If you don’t have drug and alcohol issues, if you don’t have mental health issues… If you’re just an ordinary person who has lived a good life and don’t have much money, you are at the bottom of the line.”               

Iowans concerned about how the religious right has captured the Iowa GOP and how religious institutions want the freedom to discriminate against non-believers would say “Amen” to a column in Melbourne’s Age.                

The columnist — Joumanah El Matrah, director of the Australian Muslim Women’s Center for Human Rights — criticized government for allowing such discrimination by religious organizations. She said Australians were in danger of undermining “the substance and integrity of religion by reducing it to a collection of petty bigotries.”               

For many in Iowa and across our nation, opposition to gay rights or to medical insurance benefits that include contraception reflect Ms. El Matrah’s concerns about “petty bigotries” becoming the substance of religion.

In terms of culture, language and history, Iowans have much in common with Australians. So maybe it should not be surprising that we are trying to cope with similar social issues. What is surprising, and dismaying, is how we address those issues in parochial, provincial ways, as though we couldn’t find common cause with people beyond our borders.                

This called to mind the weird vote in the U.S. Senate in December when that body failed to muster the two-thirds vote to sign on to a United Nations treaty that aids people with disabilities. Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley was among the 38 votes against the measure. Opponents said it might infringe on U.S. sovereignty. But who wants sovereignty over problems faced by the disabled or problems in juvenile justice or teacher education?                

Apparently, many in the U.S. do. The Australian press and people we visited with also made a point that Americans refuse to learn anything from reasonable gun-control laws in other nations.                

On the other hand, the U.S. events during our visit to Australia included the inauguration of President Obama, producing this comment from a correspondent for The Australian:                

“Any firsthand experience of American life can only elicit amazement at this remarkable democracy. Despite its imperfections, the US system somehow works in holding together a nation that is politically polarized and culturally diverse.”                

A nice note to end on, if only we could hold together with other nations, too, in coping with common issues. CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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