AUSTRALIANS RIGHTLY SPEND much time discussing multiculturalism, yet rarely speak of Australian internationalism. Over the last few decades, however, Australia has become a truly international society. This development is underpinned by various reasons: the falling costs of international travel, the expansion of international information channels, the dominance of English as the international lingua franca, Australia’s geographic location in the world, and the diversity of our population. Australia today is global in a way that few Australians recognise. Tens of thousands of foreign students study at our universities. At the time of writing, our defence forces are serving in peacekeeping roles around the globe, including in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and the Solomon Islands. Our local councils are thinking globally by developing community-to-community development assistance programs in countries such as Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. And our journalists anchor CNN International because the Australian accent is considered a ‘universal’ accent.
Australians also travel. In a typical year, more than one in six Australians between 18 and 28 travel overseas. Young Australians today often leave their cities, their country towns, and their farms, undertaking a “rite of passage” journey to see what the world has to offer. From Europe to Asia, South America and Africa, Australian backpackers are found everywhere, giving rise to the oft-held view of Australians as well-travelled, worldly and outgoing. Young Australians, it seems, feel part of an international community, eager to explore its farthest reaches and most exotic offerings.
Relative to its size, Australia also boasts one of the world’s largest diasporas. The Australian diaspora is currently estimated at around a million people, or about 5 per cent of the population. This is equivalent to the population of Perth or Adelaide, and it is a greater than the combined populations of Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. The “new expats” are different from the expatriates who left Australia during the 1950s and 1960s, the likes of Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Geoffrey Robertson. Today, Australians live overseas not because they resent a provincial Australia, but because the world is now truly global and Australia produces global citizens. The motivation for today’s Australians to live abroad is no longer rooted in a cultural cringe, but in the recognition that the world is a large place, worthy of exploration, and that Australians are well-placed to take advantage of what globalisation has to offer.
The new expats are no longer simply Australians who went to Oxford and Cambridge and never returned. Nor are they confined to well-known international business leaders at Westfield, McDonalds, Fosters or the World Bank. Rather, they are the restauranteurs and bar staff in London, the au pairs in Shanghai, the mining engineers in Bangkok, the designers and writers in New York, the actors in Los Angeles, the financiers in Hong Kong, the scientists in Boston, the aid workers in Kinshasa, the business people in Jakarta, the spouses of non-Australians living in Paris. An overwhelming number of Aus-tralia’s new expats are, unlike their earlier counterparts, “circulators”; people who leave for a few years with the intention to return to raise kids and enjoy the unrivalled Australian lifestyle. There is fluidity implicit in the modern Australian diaspora, a sense that Australians can move back and forth, depending on opportunities, but while calling Australia “home”. That is perhaps why Australians today, when asked about their reaction to other Australians living overseas, are overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Indeed, according to the poll commissioned by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, 91 per cent of respondents agreed with the positive statement that expatriates are “adventurous people prepared to try their luck and go overseas”. Another question found only 10 per cent agreed with the negative statement that expatriates have “let us down by leaving Australia”.
One important factor explaining Australia’s changing opinion of its expatriates is the changing nature of the expatriate experience itself. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Australians left, they were effectively entering a cone of silence as far as news from Australia was concerned. There was the mail, of course. But it often took months to receive a letter from friends and loved ones. Australian newspapers were unavailable. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive, telegrams too brief to convey much news. All of this conspired to mean that, for Australians living overseas, there were no good ways to keep intimately informed about developments at home. They were totally isolated from life in Australia.
Times have changed. The tyranny of distance has been undone by modern technology. Today, those living overseas have information at their fingertips. Australian newspapers are available online, and radio and TV programs easily web-streamed. Wireless internet makes it possible to sit in the middle of Central Park in New York and listen to Triple J or watch an AFL game. Email and instant messenger allow friends and family to keep in close contact, and international phone calls cost less than 5 cents per minute. And there are numerous Australian expat organisations (such as the UK-based Southern Cross Group and the US-based Advance organisation) promoting close association among Australians living abroad. Australians living overseas today can remain well-informed and knowledgeable about domestic affairs, nearly as easily as if they were living in Australia. No longer is it a truism, as perhaps it once was, that expatriates are always out of touch.
Importantly, these factors are also at play within the country. Australians, whether living in their cities, towns or farms, have access to international information as never before. They are frequently au fait with the latest international news, current events, celebrity gossip and fashion trends. On 2 November 2004, many Australians watched live broadcasts of the United States Presidential Election. Those with friends in America will likely discuss the unfolding events on their mobile phones, send text messages and email, notwithstanding the 14-hour time difference. This suggests that many Australians, being global citizens, have a very good understanding of the day-to-day expatriate experience, which in turn promotes greater understanding and acceptance of Australians living abroad. The gap separating Australian residents from Australian expatriates is no longer a chasm; today it is just a narrow crevice.
There remain substantive differences between living at home and living abroad. The expatriate experience is exciting, but also frequently lonely: removed from familiar surrounds, family and friends, and placed in situations where the culture and people are foreign. But distance brings perspective. It provides a comparative vantage.
This is not to suggest that the expatriate experience is the only, or the best, way to gain perspective on a home country; simply that expatriates – with their differing perspective, international knowledge and connections – have something valuable to offer their homeland. There should be nothing contentious about this fact, it is a universal phenomenon. Indonesian and Chinese friends have the same experience after studying in Australia. How many of us wish that more Americans would spend more time living abroad so as to gain a better perspective on the United States and its position in the world?
AS LIVING OVERSEAS beomces more common, it is time to stop thinking about how to stem the “brain drain” and start thinking about how to best tap this great national asset. There are models to follow. For hundreds of years, the Chinese have expanded their commercial network through guan-xi, or people connections. More recently, the Indian government has created programs to link their global technology entrepreneurs, and New Zealand promotes trade and investment through the Kiwi Expat Association network.
In our book, Imagining Australia: Ideas For Our Future (Allen and Unwin, 2004), we discuss how the diaspora can be used to promote trade and investment abroad. For example, Austrade, Australia’s trade promotion authority, should act more proactively to facilitate and strengthen networks of expatriate Australians, and use those networks to help Australian companies forge better international business relationships. Similarly, Australia should promote circulatory migration. Take for example the many Australian scientists who live abroad. For a few months each year, these scientists could take leave from their international institutions to return to Australian universities to work on research projects. By regularly engaging in collaborative projects with Australian researchers and sharing their expertise with Australian students, our expatriate researchers could make a valuable contribution to Australian science and innovation. In any scheme involving expatriate Australians, the primary goal should not be to assist expatriates (who are typically better off than the average Australian), but rather to create new opportunities for Australia.
The new expats have much to contribute beyond commerce and investment. Australia’s diaspora can be viewed as an under-utilised pool of one million ambassadors. Expatriate Australians work in many areas, and through their contacts with citizens of other nations leave an impression about Australia. These interactions are of direct benefit through increased tourism, greater cultural interest, the exchange of ideas, and even stronger international alliances. Expatriates are also well-positioned to reflect on Australia’s place in the world, highlighting national strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, identifying new opportunities for improvement. One way to capture these contributions is to better integrate the diaspora into Australian public life.
In Imagining Australia, we propose that expatriate Australians be explicitly incorporated into institutions of government. The Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, has considered the voting rights of expatriate Australians. At present, Australians living overseas can vote in elections for up to six years after leaving, and must reapply every year thereafter for permission to remain on the electoral roll. For this period, overseas electors continue to vote in the electorate in which they lived prior to their departure.
While this enables expats to maintain a political connection, we propose to grant expatriate Australians separate political representation, by creating a Senate position for a new Australian International Territory. Indeed, there is a precedent for this type of scheme in Italy, which changed its constitution in 2001 to permit Italians living overseas to vote. The Italian system divides its diaspora into four regions of the world, and only those living in a particular region at the time of election are eligible to vote or stand as a candidate for that region. Overseas representatives make up 12 of the 630 members in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and 6 of the country’s 315 Senators. While we believe that Australia should adopt a slightly different system than Italy – providing only Senate representation to its overseas residents – the Italian experience demonstrates that sensible constitutional reforms to provide voting rights to Australian expats could be enacted with a minimum of fuss.
Such a proposal would need to be carefully introduced. We propose that in return for the right to vote for an international Senate seat, overseas electors be prohibited from voting in any House of Representatives electorate during their absence. This would mean that overseas electors who, for the most part, do not pay Australian taxes, cannot influence the formation of the federal government, but gain the right to Senate representation. (An alternative would be to establish an Australian International Territory, with nonvoting Senate representation, as Puerto Rico enjoys within the United States Senate.) This would be more appropriate for Australians living overseas.
The Australian International Territory senator would serve expatriates through the tools of the globalised world, email, teleconferencing and occasional forums in the largest expatriate cities. They would be involved in mainstream Australian policy debates such as health, education and taxation, but would also provide particular expertise on issues affecting expatriates. Policies on consular representation, passport renewal, spousal visas, trade promotion, dual taxation agreements and mutual recognition of professional qualifications could all be improved with the help of a dedicated senator for the Australian International Territory.
Senate representation alone would reduce the practical problems of linking expatriate Australians to their ‘home’ House of Representatives electorate, reducing the need for embassies to distribute ballot papers. When Australia begins to adopt a secure form of internet voting (as it surely must), the diaspora seat would be the logical place to begin.
Founded before flight was possible, Australia’s political structures are ripe for updating. Creating an Australian International Territory could be another example of the democratic innovation for which Australia was once famous, whilst proclaiming to ourselves and to the world that Australia is greater than its physical borders, that it is not so much a piece of real estate as a state of mind.
Australia is an international country. The Swiss, the Norwegians and the Swedish have increasingly based their national identities around the idea of internationalism, but cannot match Australia for the combination of both an internationally diverse population and an internationally focused outlook. Australia’s large diaspora is a product of this internationalism. The new Australian expats are in many ways different to those who travelled overseas a generation ago. They are more diverse and see a period spent overseas as a natural part of their lives. They take up the opportunities the world has to offer, and return home again – contributing valuable skills and ideas. Many of the expatriates who prefer to stay overseas longer do not lose their Australian identity, but remain champions of Australia’s national interest, whose knowledge and international networks can be used to the country’s advantage. With more people heading overseas for a part of their lives, it is time to think more expansively about how best to embrace and utilise our diaspora.
More from this edition
EssayAT A YOUNG age I knew of Ithaca. Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia, the Classic Comics Mythology series and Kirk Douglas's Ulysses film (an early...
MemoirI STILL CALL Australia home. But I have another home in Italy. Virtual bilocation is my thing rather than geographic schizophrenia: I am at...
MemoirIN 1989,WHILE on a visit to Poland, I was introduced to Piotr (Peter) Skrzynecki, the famous cabaret and artistic director who lived in the...