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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Long-haul MPs face nightmare commute
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Ayers Rock in Australia and the Spanish Steps in Rome
Italy's expat politicians will swap home for Rome on a regular basis
As Italy's newly-elected parliament convenes for the first time, some politicians may be forgiven if they look a little jet-lagged.

They are the 18 expatriate senators and MPs voted in to represent the 3m-strong Italian diaspora in four new "overseas constituencies".

Now they face a tough schedule shuttling between Rome and Italian communities as far afield as Australia, Argentina and Antarctica.

OVERSEAS CONSTITUENCIES
Split into Europe, North and Central America, Latin America and Africa-Asia-Oceania
Elect 12 of the 630 MPs in the Italian lower house
Elect six of Italy's 315 senators
Set up under 2001 law allowing Italians to vote abroad for politicians standing in and for their overseas area
More than 3m expatriate Italians registered to vote

Of course, they are not alone in facing the challenge posed by far-flung constituencies.

France has MPs and senators representing overseas territories as distant as La Reunion in the Indian Ocean and French Polynesia.

French political commentator Dominique Moisi said the system works because the politicians act as lobbyists for their territories' interests rather than dealing with day-to-day problems.

"You want them not so much to be close to you as close to the president," he said. "Is it good democracy or bad? I don't know."

The Italian expats could take heart from the example of Canadian MP Larry Bagnell, who represents the country's far north-westerly Yukon territory.

Bordered by Alaska and the Arctic Ocean, his constituency, or riding, is some 5,660km (3,538 miles) by road from the seat of federal government in Ottawa.

Map of Canada showing Yukon

At the end of each week in parliament, Mr Bagnell boards a flight from Ottawa, changes in Toronto and Vancouver and 16 hours later finally arrives in Whitehorse, his base in Yukon.

Two days later, he embarks on the return journey - and follows this gruelling routine from September to June, except for a six-week break at Christmas.

"It's very tiring," Mr Bagnell said. "First of all it's three hours' time difference, so when you get to either end you have to adjust.

I could go from Ottawa to Europe and back every weekend faster and cheaper
Larry Bagnell

"That's very hard on the body - and they are making aeroplane seats smaller and smaller, so you get really cramped in.

"And once I get to the riding, it's bigger than any country in Europe and I could be travelling on anywhere."

On top of that, Mr Bagnell has to keep a different wardrobe at both ends - particularly since the suits he wears in Ottawa are no match for -40C winters in Yukon.

"I don't get any free time and I barely sleep," he said. "It's very hard on married life. I'm engaged, but whether that will last with my schedule... it poses a lot of difficulties.

"I could go from Ottawa to Europe and back every weekend faster and cheaper than going to Yukon."

Family life

Australian MP Barry Haase, who represents the Kalgoorlie constituency in the country's sparsely populated west, agrees that life as a long-distance MP is tough.

Kalgoorlie MP Barry Haase
Barry Haase represents 80,000 voters scattered across 2.3m sq km

"Family life? What's that?" he asks. "I spend about 85 nights in Canberra, associated with the sitting of the federal parliament, and about 100 nights a year in Kalgoorlie, in regional Western Australia.

"I spend the rest of the time at various points in my electorate or overnight in Perth [waiting for planes] to access other parts of it...

"It's not a job for a man with young children if he wants to be any part of their life."

As sole federal MP for a constituency representing 80,000 voters but covering 2.3m sq km - almost a third of Australia's landmass - Mr Haase sympathises with the Italian expat representatives for Africa-Asia-Oceania.

Their electorate stretches from Mongolia in the north to Antarctica in the south and from the Pacific islands in the east to Africa in the west.

Dr Neil Stanley, past chairman of the British Sleep Society, sounds a note of warning over the jet lag involved in covering such huge distances.

"If you are frequently changing time zone or working long hours or shifts, you do start working at only 60 to 70% of your potential," he says.

"You lose concentration, you lose judgement, you lose reaction - so as a politician you are not going to be on top of your game, to be honest."

But the expat MPs need not despair - asked if his constituents appreciate his efforts, Mr Bagnell points to the evidence of the ballot box.

"We've had three elections in the past five years and I've been re-elected by more each time."


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