There is a lot of cynicism about the Sister Cities program.
Is the Sister City program of value to the City of Darwin and the community we serve?
Are delegations to the Sister Cities a junket or part of the job?
A recent review of the Sister City program indicated that, yes, there is value in the program from the cultural connection view point for the City of Darwin. The review was conducted by an independent consultant.
So what is achieved?
In 2013, Council announced they had approved a trip to our Sister City Anchorage, Alaska. We had been invited to celebrate our 30 year friendship through the Sister City program.
This being the first time that I would travel to a Sister City, I wasn’t sure about the benefits to the city and elected to pay for my own travel.
I was determined to learn amongst other things how the then Mayor Dan Sullivan had halved the level of homelessness in his city within 18 months.
On my return I wrote a report for Council detailing the activities undertaken and the learnings from this experience. It was from this trip that the genesis of what would become our Darwin Safer City Project was formed.
Mayor Sullivan’s project started with a simple step. Get all the stakeholders together in a room and sort out who is doing what, where are the gaps and facilitate filling them.
Of course, with control over police, health and education, their context was a little different but it did prompt me to call for the first alcohol harms summit. But that is the subject of another blog.
Over the last few years I have managed to visit all of our international Sister Cities, most with official delegations and twice at my own expense.
All these visits had a purpose and have been at the invitation of the Sister City.
• Anchorage was to celebrate our 30 year relationship.
• Ambon was to celebrate their city’s birthday and then to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Gull Force and the arrival of Darwin to the Ambon Yacht race.
• Haikou was to attend their first Sister Cities conference and the Asian Mayor’s Forum. As Haikou’s eldest sister we had quite a role to play as they celebrated their relationships with cities across the world.
• Dili’s delegation was to attend a special conference to help the government of Timor-Leste form a view and a way forward for the decentralisation of Government functions to their provinces, in effect, the establishment of local government.
• My visit to Kalymnos coincided with a holiday in Greece and included a special sitting of their Council to celebrate and reinforce the high value they place on our relationship.
While the hosting city is always keen to show off their best attractions, the visits are usually dominated by meetings, school visits, community functions and media work.
It is also interesting to note that we have had visits from all five international Sister Cities.
While we have had no official visit from Anchorage I have met several travellers here for business or pleasure, that have brought their greetings from the city.
Ambon delegations have attended every year for the start of the yacht race.
The then Director of Foreign Affairs for Haikou City, and currently Party Secretary for the Province, Mr Han Bin visited to discuss our ongoing people to people engagement including potential business to business exchanges.
Several delegations from Dili have recently resulted in a visit by 28 Provincial administrators to receive training from City of Darwin staff and stakeholders. A mammoth effort by all involved that helped deepen our relationship with our nearest neighbour.
Kalymnos delegations have also visited, mainly in conjunction with Greek Glenti.
All our Sister Cities have a voluntary community committee here in Darwin that work to maintain our ongoing relationships. As with all our volunteers, these committees contribute to our community connectivity and their value should not be underestimated.
The original rationale for the International Sister City program was to engender world peace through people to people diplomacy. Delegations between Sister Cities are still a way of working towards that objective – building on and supporting long term friendships with grassroots governments.
As the senior elected official for the city, I take my role to represent Darwin nationally and internationally very seriously.
If we are to take our place as Australia’s Northern Capital City, a destination to be respected and visited, then I will take the opportunities as they present themselves to get the message out there and promote us with passion.