Australian prime minister opens convention with $100M polio pledge

RI President Ron Burton gives the keynote address at the opening plenary session on 1 June at the 2014 Rotary Convention in Sydney.
Rotary International/Alyce Henson
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announces a contribution of $100 million toward polio eradication during the opening session of the 2014 Rotary Convention in Sydney.
Rotary International/Monika Lozinska

As Rotary members from around the world filed into Allphones Arena for the opening ceremony of the 2014 International Convention in Sydney, they were greeted by news that the Australian government will commit $100 million over five years to help eradicate polio.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and New South Wales Premier Mike Baird were on hand to address the convention and assure Rotary members of Australia's commitment to their cause. Abbott has been at the center of attacks in recent days for his proposed federal budget, but he walked out to a standing ovation. "I don't normally get such an enthusiastic welcome," he quipped after the audience returned to their seats. "I just hope there are plenty of Australians out there."

"Please do not applaud the Australian government for what it does," Abbott added. "Applaud yourselves for what you do."

Before Abbott delivered his remarks, he met with Rotary International President Ron Burton, General Secretary John Hewko, and other senior leaders. They implored him to build on his country's fiscal commitment to polio with additional leadership, specifically in polio endemic countries. The prime minister was receptive, asked questions, and said he looked forward to continue building pathways toward a healthier world. Burton presented him with a few gifts, including his presidential tie.

Later in the program, Burton delivered the keynote address, and spoke passionately about Rotary's inability to get a fair return on its monetary investments into Youth Exchange, RYLA, Rotaract, and Interact.

"I would submit to you that we fail to adequately capitalize on our investment [to those programs]," he added. "It's our own fault. We need to start treating our New Generations as family and welcome them all into Rotary before we lose them."

Burton has invested a great deal of his time in the last two years to youth programs, helping to ensure Rotary prospers well into the future.

"The bottom line is that Rotary's future – its very survival – is up to us," he said. "We can either get up out of our chairs and really make something happen, or we can just sit there and become an endangered species and eventually die off."

He went on to applaud Rotary members for their work to eradicate polio in India, which reminded him that if Rotary members can do that, "they can do anything."

Tara Pullen, a member of the Rotaract Club of Gunargarang, Australia, appreciated Burton's message and love of Rotary.

"I know there are times when you feel stressed and overworked, but you should remember what is at the core of what you're doing for Rotary," she added. "It was an inspirational thing for me to think about."

Donald Young, a member of the Rotary Club of Cromwell, New Zealand, was also moved by Burton's speech.

"I think we are all aware of some of the membership issues facing Rotary," he said. "I was glad to hear President Ron speak so bluntly about where we stand, and what we need to do to ensure our future."

Other Rotary members expressed their excitement about the Australian donation.

"I got goosebumps when the prime minister told us about the $100 million their government will give toward polio eradication," said Bernd Egger, from the Rotary Club of Halberstatd, Germany. "It was really amazing and an honor for us."

Later in the program, Australian pop vocal group Human Nature entertained the audience. The four-man group has a long-running Motown-themed show in Las Vegas.

To close out the opening session, Rl Director-elect Julia Phelps introduced the flags of the Rotary world. Two hundred and thirteen flags were presented, including the newest one, Myanmar. The Surf Lifesavers of New South Wales helped to inspire the flag ceremony, and a video of them rowing flags across the Sydney Harbor accompanied the presentation.

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