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Friday 14 December 2018

Comment: President Higgins hugging a koala? It’s what the nation needs right now

Irish President Michael Higgins prepares ahead of a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Lukas Coch/Pool Photo via AP)
Irish President Michael Higgins prepares ahead of a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Lukas Coch/Pool Photo via AP)
Irish President Michael Higgins, left, and his wife Sabina are presented with a book from Director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson during an official visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (David Gray/Pool Photo via AP)
Irish President Michael Higgins, second right, stands with Governor General Peter Cosgrove, right, during a welcome ceremony at Government House in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Mark Graham/Pool Photo via AP)
Ireland's President Michael Higgins, second left, and his wife Sabina, left, sign a visitor's book with New South Wales state Governor David Hurley, second right, and his wife Linda, right, looking on at Government House in Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Christo, Pool)
Ireland's President Michael Higgins, left, walks with New South Wales state Governor David Hurley and Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland Frances Fitzgerald, right, on the grounds at Government House in Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Christo, Pool)
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Hello Possums! I’m currently Down Under as part of Michael D Higgins’ Australian State Visit.

It’s my first time on one of these, and let me tell you, there’s an awful lot of rigmarole — and even more people — involved.

In fact, there are 26 president’s men and women escorting the Prez about; all in wraparound sunglasses and holding clipboards. There are security guards, private secretaries, protocol personnel, a private secretary, a chief protocol officer, an executive assistant to the president, a senior advisor, an official videographer and photographer.

Finally there are two press personnel — who have been tasked with minding myself and the one other Irish journalist here in case we go rogue, and scream ‘You’re terrible Michael!’ a la Muriel’s Wedding during one of the formal State dinners.

Irish President Michael Higgins, left, and his wife Sabina are presented with a book from Director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson during an official visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (David Gray/Pool Photo via AP)
Irish President Michael Higgins, left, and his wife Sabina are presented with a book from Director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson during an official visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (David Gray/Pool Photo via AP)

I must admit the temptation to do that is very real, but so far everything has run smoothly.

Well, more or less. There have been some small blips along the way.

One of these occurred on Sunday when a member of the winning hurling team at the Australasian GAA Championships finals bent over, and pretended to moon the camera during the official photograph with the President.

Another took place when an ancient aboriginal message stick was accidentally knocked out of Higgins hands during a sacred ‘smoking ceremony’ (which involves the burning of sandalwood not inhaling a pack of John Players).

Irish President Michael Higgins, second right, stands with Governor General Peter Cosgrove, right, during a welcome ceremony at Government House in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Mark Graham/Pool Photo via AP)
Irish President Michael Higgins, second right, stands with Governor General Peter Cosgrove, right, during a welcome ceremony at Government House in Canberra, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Mark Graham/Pool Photo via AP)

But there is one much more serious slip up.

Far be it for me to criticise the Department of Foreign Affairs or the president’s office, but they have forgotten to set aside any time in the schedule for the president to spend some quality time with Australia’s most iconic local: the koala bear.

Ireland's President Michael Higgins, second left, and his wife Sabina, left, sign a visitor's book with New South Wales state Governor David Hurley, second right, and his wife Linda, right, looking on at Government House in Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Christo, Pool)
Ireland's President Michael Higgins, second left, and his wife Sabina, left, sign a visitor's book with New South Wales state Governor David Hurley, second right, and his wife Linda, right, looking on at Government House in Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Christo, Pool)

I ask you this; is there a person in Ireland who wouldn’t like to see a photo of Michael D Higgins with a marsupial on his head? I doubt it.

In an attempt to remedy this, I have started a slow and steady war of attrition with the president’s press team asking them to facilitate some sort of rendezvous with the bear of Oz. But, so far, no dice.

In fact, I was advised to “focus on the content of the president’s speeches instead of gimmicks”.

At one level, I understand why they may be wary: there’s history being written here.

Ireland's President Michael Higgins, left, walks with New South Wales state Governor David Hurley and Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland Frances Fitzgerald, right, on the grounds at Government House in Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Christo, Pool)
Ireland's President Michael Higgins, left, walks with New South Wales state Governor David Hurley and Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland Frances Fitzgerald, right, on the grounds at Government House in Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Christo, Pool)

In 2014, the then-Australian prime minister Tony Abbott greeted world leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, then-US president Barack Obama, and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye at the G20 summit by handing them two cuddly koalas called Blinky and Jimbelung (meaning friend).

Germany’s Angela Merkel was also there but she exercised her usual degree of caution, preferring to pat them on the head rather than scooping them up.

The photos were picked up by media all around the world, but this act of koala diplomacy ended up costing the Australian taxpayers $24,000. Sources say Blinky and Jimbelung had flown business class to Brisbane for the occasion.

The president’s brief encounter with these cuddly marsupials needn’t be so costly.

We could just swing by a zoo.

Plus, if he is serious about running for a second term (and I think we all know the answer to that), this could be a great way to connect with both young and old voters.

Leaders who love animals are always popular — look at Obama and his Portuguese water spaniel Bo. Or Justin Trudeau’s puppy Kenzie.

OK, I agree it may be a little gimmicky, but people love pictures of the president in peculiar places; like when he posed on a BMX in the skate park, or photobombed a man walking in the Phoenix Park.

Ireland needs this. And for the sake of the nation, I promise to persevere and make this koala dream a reality.

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