Tag Archives: politics

Iceland – a re-cap

How to start when talking about Iceland. The people? the history? the landscape? the towns? So after my 2016 trip I have already posted 4 blogs in chronological order which can be found earlier on this site. But so much remained to be said.

I was, and am still – after 8 months – totally captivated by Iceland…so familiar yet so exotic. At times I felt I had journeyed to Middle Earth; at other times I thought I was observing a very modern society. New suburbs about 10 years old brought a note of the familiar, as did the heavy 5pm traffic flows. We passed satellite towns of smart new developments and ate at restaurants the peer of some of the best in large international cities.

The population is so small and the challenges of nationhood so large, that the country is fascinating. It punches far above its weight on the world stage and just this week voted for compulsory equal pay for men and women.

Since this week Is International women’s day, it is worth mentioning that Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women Founded in 1983, the Women’s List helped increase the proportion of female parliamentarians by 15%] It disbanded in 1999, merging with the Social Democratic Alliance and left a lasting influence on Iceland’s politics: every major party has a 40% quota for women, and in 2009 nearly a third of members of parliament were female, compared to the global average of 16% for women average of 16%. (from Wiki)

To jog my own memory now and in the future, I have simply cherry picked some facts that stick with me:

LANDSCAPE

  • The country is awesome with volcanic ranges, long fjords, waterfalls, geysers, bog lands, lava fields – some of it beyond description.
  • The volcanic country is rich in geo-thermal activity. Managing this has lead to Icelandic energy experts being sought after around the world and this expertise responsible for a significant contribution to the national income.
  • Iceland has a third of the world’s lava flow with an eruption on the south coast around every 2 years.
  • 24 species of whale swim off the Iceland coast and a polar bear had swum there from Greenland the previous week – only to be shot for his trouble. (In the interests of research and of safety we were told.)

 

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THE CAPITAL

  • About 240,000 of Iceland’s 330,000 citizens live in the capital,Reykjavik.
  • More than 2 million tourists pass through Reykjavik annually, that is more than 6 tourists for every citizen.
  • Parliament Square is the home of the Allthing (the Parliament), a surprisingly small and unpretentious building with a smart extension – surprising until you remember that the population is only 330,000, less than many local authorities/cantons in the western world.
  • Here in 2008 the people gathered to demand action on the financial crisis when the State took over the banks’ debts. In November that year, what is now known as the “pots and pans” revolution happened. People used these cooking tools to generate noise in the square. The police kept the calm. People started dressing in orange to signify peaceful protest.
  • Harpa Hall the concert hall, was being built on the waterfront as a convention centre, hotel etc. by a bank which went bust in 2008. The government bailed them out and this huge cultural centrepiece was completed by the national and city governments. 1.7million visitors a year enjoy this standout building of geometric glass shaped panels. It is a beautiful, imposing building even if perhaps out of scale with the town.
  • Hallgrim’s Church was commissioned in 1937 and took 41 years to complete. It is said to be designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.
  • There is a settlement museum in town showing where the first houses lay under the foundations of the current town.
  • The National Museum has an artefact which is believed to be of the god Thor, one of the few remaining signs of the pre Christian culture.
  • The pedestrian area is lively as in many sophisticated tourist towns.
  • I enjoyed watching the crowd at one posh restaurant, the Grillmarket, where there was one entrée of 3 sliders filled respectively with puffin, minke whale and lobster. I sat at the bar watching dish after dish of minke whale leaving the kitchen. I enquired of the meat the girl next to me was eating. I was told it was the best horse in town.
  • Wine like most things in Iceland was expensive There were Australian wines: – a Wolf Blass President’s Selection at17,900 IK a bottle ($195) and the familiar old quaffer Jacob’s Creek cab sav for $359 (gulp).
  • Coffee was $5.90 in most places and glass of Spanish wine about $16.

 

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HISTORY

Early history

  • Icelanders have been here for 10,000 years; while Vikings settled the country, Celtic DNA is also present.
  • The Icelandic sagas tell the story of the tribes who settled here as early as 874AD.
  • The first parliament in the world, the Allthing, is said to have begun with the 930AD and then annual, meeting of the 13 Icelandic chiefs in the impressive fields at Laws were read and codified at these gatherings.
  • Christianity arrived in 1000AD and in 1262 the tribal gathering then pledged to Norway’s king. The Allthing was not revived until 1843.

Modern history

Our guide Bjarne (more later) described the recent history of Iceland as the 4 revolutions:

  • Mechanisation. In1902 the first boat with a motor appeared, then the first taller, then the fishing industry was mechanised as were the farms
  • Population explosion. In18990, 13% of people lived in towns larger than 50 people. In 1923, it was 50% and by 2000 only 6% of people lived in rural areas.
  • Energy revolution. Hydro plants were established selling to aluminium companies and the growth of energy knowledge stimulated the export of the expertise.
  • Bank revolution. Around 2000 peopled started to believe Iceland could become an international monetary centre. Government sold the banks to private investors and banks underwrote overseas investments. Local development boomed (some say with the import of eastern european labour including new influences of drugs and criminal elements. By 2008 with the GFC people realised things were wrong and the demonstrations for reform began.

 

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Thought to be the only found idol from the pre-Christian period.

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Along the escapement at Thingvellir where the world’s first democratic parliament met

ECONOMY

  • The economy relies mainly on tourism (30%), fishing (20%), aluminium smelting – enabled by cheap energy (30%) and export of alternate energy expertise.
  • Tourism is seeing a year on year increase of 20%
  • Fish has dropped from 60% of the export economy to 20%. The main fish export is cod but mackerel (which were never seen in Iceland until a few years ago) are now appearing in large numbers.
  • There was a building boom here between 2000 and 2008 preceding and in part generating the Icelandic fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.
  • Now after 9 years, the debts are paid and young people who went abroad are being encouraged to return. There now seems to be more new building happening although the few Icelanders I spoke to were wary, working harder than ever to set themselves up and hoping the cycle was not on repeat.
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Geysers bring tourists and geothermal expertise

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Puffins are a drawcard for the tourists

PEOPLE

  • Settlement is in a number of towns scattered around the coast and many months of the year are spent in constant darkness so like most of Scandinavia and Greenland, inhabitants suffer from the “dark depression”.
  • Between a quarter and a third of Icelandic men are admitted to an alcohol addiction centre during their lifetime.
  • Iceland has more authors per capita than anywhere else in the world
  • the national sport is swimming and recently Iceland has punched far above its weight in soccer.
  • There is a gene in Icelanders that can be found in the Irish and Scottish Celts but the jury is out on whether this came from the women the Vikings stole as wives or whether it is that carried by the Norwegian Vikings it is not known. Suffice to say that there’s a bit of Irish in the Vikings and in the Icelanders.
  • While there are 5 political parties, the recent emergence of the Pirate Party seeking full transparency and open access to government accounted for 40% of the vote, a first in Europe.
  • Whatever the genetic material, I found the people direct and friendly, possibly with a dry humour and certainly they have shown a passion for their politics – all of which sits well with my own Irish background

Our guide Bjarne described the Icelandic character as:

  • Curious about the world because of the island home
  • Hard working , strong and courageous because of the harsh surroundings and the power of natural forces
  • Kind to each other because it is a small society and living is hard
  • Opportunistic, competitive and sometimes greedy (he cited bankers and fishermen
  • Stoic

Our guide personified for me the direct, reserved, dry humoured, knowledgeable, strong person that I began to think was the Icelandic character.

For much of this information I am grateful to Bjarne an impressive man, one time a sculptor then an arts administrator and now a wonderful guide. He had a wonderful face.

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Very angry, with reasons……. Australian election 2013

My eyes welled with tears driving home. Sad. Angry. In Australia yesterday the Liberals (conservatives) won the elections. I take my politics seriously but this time my response has been more intense and passionate than ever.

Early signs – a few weeks ago I burnt off one of my oldest friends who levelled personal criticism at me when I did not laugh loudly enough (on email) at an anti- Kevin Rudd cartoon. For the first time in a long active political life I lost an important friendship over political differences. But really I was sick of the bile all around me. I should stop reading social media!

Those on the left with their loathing of Rudd were some of the most active whiteanters of the Labor government sniping him as they believed he had sniped Gillard.

For the first time in memory I could not watch the tally room commentaries knowing as I did that the current government would be whipped. Imagine this avoidance from a political junkie who as a young woman revelled in being a groupie in the national tally room on election night.

One of my best friends rang to say he thought the concession speech of the defeated PM Rudd had shown signs of an unhinged man. My frustration boiled over. Wasn’t the man who had been so vilified and had worked his guts out, entitled?  Why did my friends, all left leaning, despise this man who for me had painted the only big pictures for this country since the great Gough?

Anyway as someone who had run for 8 elections (not for either party) and lost 2 of them, I knew a fraction of the personal hurt he could be masking that night.

Sure Kevin Rudd might be an undermining narcissist but he too was a victim. In one of the saddest karmic Shakespearean episodes in our short history he, as PM, was removed in a quick assassination only to later replace Brutus in a slightly less brutal way and perhaps more insidious way. But like many tragic figures he did not have the gift of forgiveness. How many of his critics would have I wonder?

I snapped. It’s not that I am a Rudd fan; it’s more I was sick to the stomach with the whole ugly thing. My friend and I decided not to talk for a few days.

Another dear friend rang and I speculated as to why I was so upset after I cited the self-satisfied man at the supermarket I had sniped at over a photo of the new leader in the paper.

This friend suggested it was because I had been sick all last week. I snapped at her too. Don’t patronise me. My political outrage is based on rational passionate views, I said.

What were they then? Why this anger? Because:

  • I believe the new government is peopled with those of little compassion who constantly parroted negative canting superficialities over the past 4 years. Virtually none of them projected as people of heart.
  • The campaign they fought had been scripted to avoid all real questions about what kind of a government they would make. Indeed most costs and policies are still unknown. And the media let them get away with it.
  • Those few policies the new PM did articulate like: _
    • buying back Indonesian boats used by people smugglers;
    • paying rich women more money then others to have babies

just seem more than a bit CRAZY,

  • The dirty digger, Rupert Murdoch was their primary advocate and used his media to proselytise the most despicable sloganeering ad hominem I have ever witnessed including a front page of one paper showing the Prime Minister and his deputy dressed as comic Nazis.
  • During the last parliament both sides were hell bent on a race to the bottom to show they were not weak on the refugee issue. I had some slim hope that Labor (if the pressure were lessened) would weaken its stance and return to a more humane program as it had previously done. I have no such hope with the conservatives.
  • The mindless slogans – Stop the Boats, Cut the Taxes, The country is in a mess – contributed to the public’s negativity. The truth is that we have never had it so good — interest rates are lowest they have ever been; we have one of the highest standards of living in the world; our GDP is comparatively healthy; national debt is comparatively low etc. etc.
  • The new Prime Minister Abbott and his close henchmen have led a relentless campaign of destruction over the past five years tearing down two Labor leaders. They showed their greatest hatred for our first, strong and most dignified woman Prime Minister through episodes where Tony Abbott incited the crowd in front of posters saying Ditch the Witch. His own actions and words and his lack of criticism of his outrageous shock jock allies, endorsed a new politics of personal bile and vile like I have never seen before.
  • I am heartbroken other citizens appeared to be so dumbed down as to not see how manipulated they were being. They bought the conservative message and wanted the reforming PM Julia Gillard to go.
  • This was an election of “what’s in it for me” rather than one of “what’s best for the country as a whole”. Increasing material selfishness is becoming a hallmark when I continue to hope it might be more JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
  • The new Prime Minister is a misogynist, xenophobe, climate denier, and homophobe – no matter that his Barbie daughters say it’s just “daddy dad” talk. I don’t want someone’s “daggy dad” as my Prime Minister. And we are heading back to the fifties when under a unified Labor lot we might, just might, have been a role model for an open, compassionate, egalitarian, liberal society. And cynics say there is little difference between the two major parties!!

Sure governments rotate at regular intervals and this is part of the cycle. But few in the process of generating the impetus for the rotation have so undermined the values of a fair go and equality that I thought were the hallmarks of this country.

When this incoming Prime Minister said Australia was again “open for business” it said it all. The sleight of words -no one had ever suggested it had been closed; but more importantly, those striving for a humane and just society would not have mainlined that theme.

Anyway it is now two days in and I am calming down. But I don’t apologise for the up swelling of my passion.

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