Policy

Community despite geography

FOR AN INCREASING number of us among the million in our diaspora, the penny has dropped, big time. Australia is about all Australians, regardless of where they make their homes. Our nation is the sum of all its people. Emphasis added.

That might sound obvious. Who could possibly disagree? After all, didn't Australians invent mate­ship? Aren't we the most successful multicultural (read: inclusive) nation on the planet? Yes, of course – to all of the above. But make no mistake: the seemingly obvious concept, that Australia is about all Australians, which requires delink­ing "belonging" from territorial presence, isn't part of mainstream consciousness in Australia today.

If you're overseas there's a sense that you've at least temporar­ily abandoned Australia. Why would you want to leave when you're a citizen of the greatest sporting nation on earth, where the sun shines most of the time? It's incomprehensible. Especially when you think about the thousands who are breaking down our doors to get into the land of green and gold; that we've now put up so many barriers against.

Even if the overt recrimination is absent, there's still simply an absence of understanding that somehow Australians abroad might need or should be rightly factored in to what's going on at home. If you're not there, then you're not there, pure and simple. Out of sight, out of mind.

Every expat Australian reading this and every other Australian who has ever set foot overseas will know in his or her gut that the notion that if you're not there you don't count just can't be correct – either subjectively or objectively. It's certainly not right emotionally. And it's not right socially, politi­cally or economically.

The fact is, the "you don't count or belong anymore because you're not here" attitude just doesn't tally with the experiences we in the diaspora have all had. Strangely, mysteriously, with a toe on foreign soil, a creeping phenomenon mani­fests itself in every cell of our being. Australians actually feel more Australian abroad than when they're at home. Weird but true. And remarkably, the disease gets worse over time.

 

I CAST MY mind back to when I left Australia in 1991, before the internet age, freshly naive from university in Canberra, off to take up a German government scholarship to learn about European Union law in Hamburg. It was all so fantastically exciting. I wasn't going to miss it for the world. Or perhaps I should say, I wasn't going to miss the world just because Australia was home.

But in Hamburg I got a bit of a shock about Australia. I learnt for the first time about its real place in the world. How small we are. How we're only on CNN when a gunman shoots dozens of people at Port Arthur or Canberra burns down. How really far away we are. How our economy hardly even registers as a visible blip on the global radar screen. Unsettling stuff for the uninitiated.

And quite distinctly, apart from the day-to-day logistics of organis­ing a new life in a new country in a foreign language and the thrill of succeeding at being part of some­where else, I felt that somehow my foundations as an Australian were suddenly shaky. It hit me that without the geographic tangibility of Australia in the air I was breath­ing, I couldn't immediately see whether I could continue to be part of our great nation. Would anyone other than my immediate family still want me? How could I actively participate and contribute, which I surely wanted to do, even though I wasn't there? I knew without doubt that I belonged to Australia. I could see that I could belong else­where too, but I would always belong there.

Working out how to shore up my wobbly foundations and find answers to these dilemmas has been a gradual and multifaceted journey over a number of years since those first months away. My career as a lawyer has taken me from Hamburg to Brussels, to the United States and then back to Europe, with periods in Australia squeezed in whenever possible. Separately, though, the personal, rather than the professional journey, ultimately led to the for­mation of the Southern Cross Group (SCG).

 

BIG TREES GROW from small seeds. The SCG sprouted from a town-hall-style meeting of about 35 Australians in Brussels in January 2000. Several Australians in Belgium, myself included, had identified a number of areas in which overseas Australians were disadvantaged. It was clear that change was only going to come about if someone took things up with the powers that be. Reluctance in existing Australian expat forums to be seen to "upset the applecart" or "get political" meant that we were forced (fortuitously, it turns out) to "go out on our own" and set up a new organisation.

Inclusiveness is at the heart of the SCG. We try to encompass all in the Australian diaspora rather than just those in a particular country or city. We are not trying to be a local Aussie social club that holds barbe­cues on Australia Day, or a business networking group. There are other organisations that do that, in towns and cities across the globe.

Rather, we see our mandate as twofold: to work for change on issues of common importance to the 5 per cent of Australians living offshore who've fallen off the radar screen, and to provide support for diaspora members, particularly as they run up against barriers in law, policy and administrative practices. One activity couldn't exist without the other. Unless we continually field emails and phone calls and hear what expats' concerns are, we wouldn't have advocacy work to do.

Organising and mobilising people in the virtual diaspora com­munity presents its own complexities. There's no instruction manual. The best way is just to turn on your computer, sign up for a low-cost long-distance telecom­munications carrier, get on and do it. We've learnt a lot just through trial and error and we're still learn­ing.

The challenges for running the SCG as a virtual organisation exist on three levels. First, we have to properly harness the resource that is our global volunteer workforce. Second, beyond the confines of our internal team, we have to contin­ually work at improving our visibility and penetration into the diaspora itself. If we can't find expats and they can't find us, we can't tell them about changes that will benefit them, that we've worked so hard to achieve, or support them and hear their views on current impediments that still need addressing. And we can't connect with them and help them to feel part of our virtual commu­nity and less alone in their Australian-ness. Finally, we have to work at changing mainstream con­sciousness about the diaspora.

The SCG runs entirely on volun­teer efforts, with a permanent call for volunteers up on its website. The team numbers about a hundred people in more than 30 countries. No one works full-time. People come from all walks of life across all ages, from students to retired people, from homemakers to airline pilots, teachers to com­puter geeks, long-term expats who left Australia 40 years ago to first-time-away working-holiday-makers just out of school. You might say that the only qualifica­tion or unifying factor is that our volunteers are all Australian, but even that's not strictly true: some are not technically Australian citi­zens in law.

We get numerous emails from people who've stumbled across the site, excited because they identify with what they've read and hadn't realised that lots of other Aus­tralians out there had similar feelings, and immediately write in to volunteer. Sometimes they forget to say where they are or what their names are! It takes a couple of probing emails before you extract that "SexyOzzie" at hotmail is a freelance acoustic guitarist origi­nally from Wagga Wagga but now living in Rio. All part of our diaspora's rich tapestry.

A certain percentage of volun­teers fall by the wayside because they find, after initial enthusiasm, that they really don't have any time to spare alongside their existing work and family commitments. For our established leading volunteers, it can also be hard to gauge initially how best to use a new volunteer, without a personal knowledge of the individual's skills, background or circumstances. Most people have genuinely altruistic motives, but a small handful might really just be looking to find a paid job or promote their new online business selling Vegemite to expats or find a free place to stay in a foreign city. Not having a full-time paid central co-ordinator has its downsides. To coin a phrase my mother always used, we literally run on the smell of an oil rag.

Longer-term reliable "core" vol­unteers serve as hubs in important regions. In the United Kingdom, where a third of all expat Aus­tralians reside, we've been extremely fortunate to have on board from the beginning a com­mitted and dedicated person who joined SCG's ranks because she had been a victim of Australia's outdated citizenship laws and unwittingly forfeited her Aus­tralian citizenship on becoming British several years ago. Although working for more equitable citizen­ship resumption provisions has been her motivation, she shares the wider common purpose of achiev­ing full participation for those in our diaspora. In the UK, we've been able to hold a number of face-to-face events in London that have strengthened our presence there enormously and developed our fol­lowing.

In the US, an ex-Australian Defence Force Academy graduate and former navy officer joined as our North American co-ordinator after an online romance took her to a new life and husband in west Michigan. These days when people call her home telephone number, they get a message telling them they've "reached the home of Southern Cross Group USA". Her new American family remains baffled. She's now the proud mum of a little dual-citizen daughter, with another on the way. Face-to-face events in the US are possible, but more difficult, because Aus­tralians in the US are everywhere.

Beyond the organisation of vol­unteers, we are continually working to reach more Australian expats to tell them what we are doing, to provide sound informa­tion on the issues and to ask for support in ongoing campaigns. So far we are only scratching the surface of the million people we know are out there. It has been vital to establish good links with all the other Australian expat groups of any description that we've been able to find. They, in turn, pass on our e-bulletins to their member­ships, either in their snail-mail newsletters or in emails. Our direct email list of expat Australians was originally about a hundred people in Belgium. Today, it's 6000 people globally and more through other groups.

 

SOME OF OUR initially identified "issues" can be ticked off five years down the track as hard-won accomplishments. Australian citizenship law reform was unquestionably the first great unifying and community-building campaign across the diaspora. With four or five million Australians legally enjoying dual citizenship due to their migrant background, those of us overseas wanted to be able to acquire citizenship in our country of residence without forfeiting our Australian citizenship. The solution was as simple as deleting 65 words from the Australian Citizenship Act 1948, the infamous Section 17. But it took a long time to convince the handful of people with the power to repeal those few words that justice demanded their demise. If we hadn't been able to mobilise literally thousands of expats to send emails, faxes and letters to Canberra over a two– or three-year period, Section 17 would still be on the statute books.

Since then we've been working for further citizenship law reform, in particular for a more equitable citizenship resumption provision for all those who lost their citizen­ship while Section 17 was in force. In July 2004, the Government announced further planned reforms that will solve that particu­lar problem and a handful of other citizenship issues. We are still trying to make sure that other citi­zenship reforms, seemingly not covered by that latest announce­ment, find their way into the amending legislation that will be needed to effect the latest reform package.

The other great issue facing the diaspora is voting rights and the broader issue of how it should be represented. We estimate that about half a million expatriate Australian citizens are disenfranchised because of provisions in the Com­monwealth Electoral Act 1918, which prevent them from enrolling. Many believe that the offending provisions in the act may well be unconstitutional. It's hard to know what the High Court would think, especially without an explicit right to vote in our Constitution. Our efforts on this front have been extensive, but the results less spec­tacular. Voting is a longer-term issue for the SCG, but the single most important issue we have. It goes to the heart of what we are about. All Australian citizens aged 18 or over, regardless of where they live, and regardless of how long they've been away, should have a right to vote. They may not choose to exercise that right – but they should have it. Voting for overseas citizens could never be compulsory, for purely logistical reasons. In the internet age, the argument that expats can't keep up with events at home is wholly spurious.

René Descartes said: "I think, therefore I am". For the SCG, it was a case of "We have a domain name and a website, therefore we exist". Instantly, as those first awkwardly laid-out pages went live on the net, we had a small but nevertheless global presence. But I know that we will ultimately be judged by the shift in consciousness that we are slowly bringing about for the benefit of all Australians, and the thousands of individuals we've helped via legislative change and information campaigns. Over the past five years, the organisation has evolved to become the only inde­pendent, international advocacy and support group for the Aus­tralian diaspora. No one else does what we do. What we're doing must be useful and necessary; oth­erwise we wouldn't still be here. Every time someone tells me they've just become a dual citizen, or managed to stay on the electoral roll because of information they've obtained from us, or I see the term "Australian diaspora" used in the Australian media, I believe it's worthwhile.

When I turn on my home com­puter every morning in Brussels, I'm immediately connected with a multitude of Australians who are passionate about Australia in the same way I am, although most of them, like me, don't live within our nation's territorial boundaries. Through the ether, we're linked, supporting, communicating. A community despite, or in spite of, geography.

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