Of wombats and wallabies

Fulbright professor Diana Dwyre on the political differences between America and Australia

Diana Dwyre spent six months in Australia as a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science.

Diana Dwyre spent six months in Australia as a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

“If we knew each other, we might not kill each other,” offered Chico State political science professor Diana Dwyre, loosely paraphrasing the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright.

Dwyre returned last month from a six-month stay in Australia, where she spent a sabbatical semester as the 2009-10 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science at Australia National University in Canberra. In paraphrasing Sen. Fulbright, she was offering the rationale behind the creation of the prestigious scholarship.

In addition to being one of the approximately 800 Fulbright scholars chosen annually by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. State Department, Dwyre—whose academic specialty is campaign finance and election issues—was one of only 39 people given the enviable appointment of Distinguished Chair.

Dwyre spent a good part of five months, from January to June, traveling Down Under, conducting speaking engagements on the subject of U.S. politics at various universities and American consulates. She also spoke to a delegation of the Australian Political Exchange Council traveling to the United States, as well as the Tasmanian Government Training Consortium, did radio and television interviews and even gave a lecture in the Senate of the Australian Parliament.

“Basically, my job was to do research and a nationwide lecture tour,” said the engaging 50-year-old.

Dwyre and her husband, Joe Picard, and their 11-year-old son, Quinn, spent the last three weeks of their stay touring and taking in the state of Queensland’s exotic wildlife—cassowaries, deadly box jellyfish, koalas, wombats, wallabies, bandicoots, Tasmanian devils, echidnas, sugar gliders, stone fish, stingrays and so on.

It was Quinn’s fascination with Australia’s unique creatures that tipped the balance in favor of that country when Dwyre was first thinking of where she would like to go if chosen for the Fulbright Program.

“My son wanted to go to Australia because it had more poisonous and venomous creatures than anywhere in the world,” Dwyre said. “And he was going to come along, so he had to have a say.” She also liked the idea of Australia because its campaign finance system, while different from America’s, is “very, very approachable” as a subject of research.

Quinn attended school in Canberra, where Dwyre was based.

“It was a great experience for him,” she said. “It was helpful for him to see a very different approach to learning and teaching. [Australians] don’t starve their schools of resources. There is a general acknowledgement that [education] is important and generally worthy of their taxes.”

Dwyre also spoke of Australians’ “very different approach to life, their political culture, and how those things affect the policy they embrace. Health care—this is the best example.”

She was struck by how many times Australians came up to her when she first arrived (during the height of the health-care debate in the U.S.) and asked, “What is wrong with Americans that you don’t want to give each other health care? It’s a basic human necessity.”

“They are shocked at our lack of compassion,” she said. “When they see that some [Americans] lose all their money to pay for health care—or die—it’s really shocking to a lot of people.”

Australians believe that everyone deserves a “fair go,” said Dwyre. “It’s just part of their psyche. And the way they approach a ‘fair go’ is more accessible. … It’s just a given that people should have food, clothing, shelter, health care and education.”

Australia, she said, has “a social safety net that works.”

But Dwyre also mentioned that Australians are focused on similar hot-button issues as Americans—especially immigration and involvement in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

As it is here in the United States, “support for Australian troops in Afghanistan is beginning to wane,” Dwyre said.

In her talks about campaign finance, Dwyre found that “mostly, [Australians] were concerned that their elections didn’t turn into big-money, American-style elections. Like a lot of people here, they see money as potentially corrupting.”

Dwyre will be sharing what she learned in Australia this fall with her Chico State colleagues, as well as with her 400-student Introduction to American Government class and the students she counsels as Political Science internship coordinator and graduate-assistant teaching supervisor.

“For me, research-wise, Australia was a really great choice,” she said.