A two-week political exchange program offered Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena, an opportunity to meet officials in Australia’s government and to reflect on what it means to be a leader.
Among the conversations she and members of the six-person American Council of Young Political Leaders delegation had with officeholders in Australia was one in which she recalled being told it was up to those elected to office to bring honor back to who they are.
Eck, 35, is preparing for her second legislative session, which will begin in about a month. She will carry into the state Capitol as the minority whip for the House Democratic caucus the insights and reflection that came from her time as part of the delegation.
“It affirmed for me that the role of the states is so important,” she said, explaining what it means to her to have a citizen Legislature.
That ordinary people in Montana can run for office, “it reinforced my belief that we have a lot going for us here.”
The economic struggles other families face are the same as her family faces, said Eck, who manages Carol’s List, which seeks to recruit, train and elect women in Montana.
“I am immediately accountable to the people that I represent,” Eck said as she sat at her dining table and talked about her trip.
Those who are chosen for this political exchange must be between the ages of 25 and 40. They must also be nominated. Eck’s nomination came from Michele Reinhard, who was a state representative from Missoula. Eck was notified she had been selected after submitting an essay explaining why she wanted to participate.
“You don’t have to be elected but show a promising political future,” she said of what the council sought in its delegates.
The trip was arranged in partnership with the Australian Political Exchange Council and made possible by a grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
The delegation consisted of two Republicans, two Democrats and two independents. Four of her delegation were elected office holders.
Her time as part of the delegation, she said, gave her a larger perspective on government and what’s possible -- an outlook that has helped her see what Montana’s Legislature does well.
The trip included a private meeting with the Australian speaker of the House of Representatives, Eck said, and the president of the Senate. There was also an opportunity to sit in the gallery during question time when the minority party grilled those in the ruling party.
“Talk about a democracy at work. It kind of grew on me,” she said.
Voting is mandatory in Australia. Those who fail to register or vote, she said, can be fined.
But it’s easier to vote as there’s a 60-day opportunity and polling places are spread across the country, from the middle of desert lands to one even in Antarctica for Australians who live and work there.
About 92 percent of Australians register and about 88 percent of them vote, Eck said.
“It makes for a much more populous government. Young people vote, poor people vote, transient people vote,” she said.
Eck also took note of Australia’s quality of life -- cities have bus and subway systems, ferry systems serve communities, as does train service. Bike paths are separate from roads.
The federal minimum wage is $16.75, and there’s no tipping in restaurants.
“I think there’s just a belief they get paid enough in their wages that you don’t need to subsidize it in their tips,” Eck said.
Also unlike the United States, students in Australia aren’t expected to begin repaying their educational loans until they begin to make $50,000 a year, which she saw as contributing to a stronger and happier populous.
And health care there is universal, although a national debate surfaced during the delegation’s visit regarding plans for a $7 co-pay.
The income tax was about 37 percent, which is about what state and federal taxes take from wages in Montana, Eck said.
To see the quality of life there was bittersweet at times and a little heartbreaking too, she said, explaining some Helena families work two and three jobs to survive.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” Eck said, adding America is making a trade-off in what it spends domestically as opposed to its budget for defense.
Foreign policy, she continued, shouldn’t be “at the expense of our own people.”
But there were similarities between Australia and Montana that she noticed too, such as the nation’s friendly people. A lack of big money in elections was another similarity.
“It’s about how hard you work and how many doors you knock,” Eck said, the memory of her latest campaign less than a month distant.
Politics in this country have people in opposite corners and lobbing insults at one another, she said.
At this point, she mentioned something Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., once said. It's OK to question another person’s judgment, but don’t question the motives, she recalled of the advice that Joe Biden recounted in his 2009 farewell speech to the Senate, which can be found online.
She isn’t sure if she is changed by her time with the delegation, but said it honed her public speaking skills.
“I’m big on communication, and I’m big on building relationships across the aisle,” Eck said.
Even with her party being the minority in the House and Senate, she is not left feeling hopeless, she said.
“At the end of the day, that’s what you have there. You have your vote and you have your voice.”
“It comes down to good policy and fighting for good policy,” Eck said.
A willingness among some Republicans to support policies unpopular to others in their party allowed bills to advance to the governor’s desk that otherwise wouldn’t have, she noted.
“It happened enough that I have hope that it will continue to happen," she said.
Her time there reaffirmed the importance of relationships that she said are at the core of trade, alliances and passing good public policy.
“If you want to get stuff done, you’ve got to build relationships. That’s the bottom line,” Eck said.