What the media coverage of the Finnish PM says about us

There is nothing which agitates much of the ‘Anglosphere’ media more than a young attractive woman in power. The latest example of the phenomenon is the treatment of 37-year-old Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

In New Zealand Jacinda Ardern got asked whether she and Marin were meeting because they were young and female. Ardern called the questioner out. In Australia the same sort of coverage followed when Marin arrived here shortly after.

The impetus for the question was two-fold: first because she was, unlike most Prime Ministers and Presidents around the world, that most threatening of characters – young and female.

Second, at home in Finland Marin had been subjected to criticism because she went to a party, danced and had a good time. She had to explain she wasn’t drunk or taking drugs. At the very least she was much more sober than many Australian MPs are on Wednesday nights in Canberra.

Every report about the incident was followed by the speculation that she would lose her position in elections next year – obviously suggesting the two were linked.

On the other hand it was probably the most publicity Finland has ever achieved in New Zealand, Australia and other parts of the world.

Which would be good if there wasn’t so much else about Finland that Australia – and many other countries – could learn if it looked closely at the country.

Probably the best-known fact is that there are more saunas than people in the country but that’s the least of its achievements. It is also rated as the happiest nation in the world which might seem amazing to Australians who know a bit about the country’s weather. The venison is also superb.

But more importantly, its education system is one of the best in the world as a result of raising the social status and training of teachers. There are 10 applications for each of the 660 available teaching slots available each year demonstrating the desirability of the profession and its esteem. Those who do become teachers are well paid and well resourced. Primary school teachers are required to get into specialist university courses and also need to undertake research-based Master’s courses with emphasis on creative thinking.

This compares with Australia where conservatives are constantly emphasising old-fashioned curricula and the demanding that there be absolutely no dangerous creative thinking and salaries are incommensurate with the work involved.

Over the years the biggest educational problem Finland has had is the disruption of classes as visitors from all over the world come to study just why the Finnish educational results are so outstanding.

It is also a country where music is an integral part of the curriculum from grade three onwards and Finnish music education is considered the best in the world. Satu Vanska, who plays in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, is just one example of Finnish musicians performing around the world.

The architecture of schools, private and public buildings is a distinctive and stunning take on Scandinavian design. From the time of Alvar Aalto onwards great Finnish architects have produced a style which combines Nordic minimalism with strands of Finnish history.

But not that the place is all minimalism. At Rovaniemi convoys of buses deliver tourists from around the world to the Santa Claus village. If you catch a bus Helsinki heading north to Kirkenes you make a short detour through the village –  which quick glimpse is probably better than battling through the hordes of Chinese and Japanese tourists wandering around. That is unless you have children or grandchildren with you.

The country and its Scandinavian neighbours also have much to teach us about Indigenous recognition and culture. The Sami, the Scandinavian Indigenous group, are the majority population in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Murmansk. It is often claimed the Sami are the only Indigenous people in the EU although there are other groups that challenge that claim.

Most importantly though there is a Sami Parliament in each country and significant cooperation across national borders. Our Voice proposal looks extremely minimalist in comparison.

Sami herders cross borders for summer and winter pasturing. Their stock takes precedence over traffic which is probably a good thing given that colliding with reindeer might kill the animal while totalling your vehicle.

…and given the situation in the Ukraine the Finnish experience of war is a useful as a lesson for us all.

The Finns fought the Winter War against a 1939 Soviet invasion; with the Germans against the Russians and then against the Russians on their own behalf. After the war Finland retained its independence but had to cede 10% of its territory to Russia and pay reparations. US officials labelled the situation ‘Finlandization’ and ridiculed the Finns for the concessions they were forced to make to the Russians using this as an example of what might happen to other European countries. But there was no alternative.

One good thing came of all this later as the fenced neutral area between the countries became one of Europe’s most diverse and important natural areas. Bears in particular loved it. Today though, new fences are going up at the border between Russia and Finland thanks to the Ukrainian war.

Finland has been cursed by living in interesting times in the 20th century and again today. But it is still a world leader in so many ways. We should be learning from it – rather than asking offensive questions of their Prime Minister.