Kiwi politics under US scrutiny

June 2010


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Students in North America find New Zealand politics fascinating, according to Victoria University’s Dr Jon Johansson.

Johansson was Fulbright’s visiting scholar in New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University, Washington late last year and taught a course on contemporary New Zealand politics entitled ‘New Zealand Politics: 1975-2009’.

The course was taught at the Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies, part of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The centre was established in August 1995 with New Zealand and Australian government funding. Georgetown is the only university in North America offering an undergraduate certificate programme in Australian and New Zealand studies.

It was Johansson’s first time teaching overseas and he says the undergraduate American students he taught showed a real interest in New Zealand.

“I found the students to be highly motivated – they were very self-driven. I’ve come back with greater expectations for my students after my experience at Georgetown.”

Johansson says his course on New Zealand politics showed American students the startling differences with the New Zealand political system, where radical political and social change can occur much more easily than in America. Students often expressed amazement at this.

“American students shake their heads in wonderment at what our little democracy is capable of doing. Our nuclear-free policy is a prime example.”

He says the attitude of the students reflected a widespread feeling he encountered in the United States. He visited about 20 states and says the overall feeling was one of very real angst, with President Barack Obama failing to live up to some impossibly large expectations of his presidency.

“Obama went in there with a change mantra but he hasn’t transformed his country in the way his supporters hoped. While the healthcare reform was a big deal, as the fallout from its passing has shown, he certainly hasn’t changed the culture of Washington.

“The problems in America are so institutional in nature that the presidency is entirely problematic. It’s fair to ask whether any president can effectively lead in 21st century America,” Johansson says.

Now back in New Zealand, Johansson is able to give New Zealand students an understanding of the political mechanisms of Washington.