Leaving home

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 November, 2004, 12:00am

Australians love to travel. At any one time, there are no less than one million, out of a population of 20 million, overseas. But forget the image of the backpacker drinking in bars and lounging on beaches. About three-quarters of Australians abroad are well-educated 'gold collar' professionals working in London and Los Angeles, Hamburg and Hong Kong.

A report released this week by a Sydney-based think-tank, the Lowy Institute, found that thanks to globalisation, the Australian diaspora is more numerous, more widespread and more influential than ever before.

They are driven, in part, by a desire to see the world and experience new countries, and also by a lack of career opportunities at home. As one expat put it: 'If your business is not property development or selling imported products, then Australia is a career cul-de-sac.' Australians, the report found, punch well above their weight on the world scene. The heads of such major corporations as Pizza Hut, Rio Tinto, McDonald's, Polaroid and British Airways are Australian. The editors of The Times of London and the New York Post both hail from Down Under. There are 20 Australian-born professors at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while in Britain, the London Philharmonic and Sadler's Wells Theatre are run by Australians.

Just under half the expat Australians are in western Europe, with 15 per cent in North America, 15 per cent in the Middle East, and 10 per cent in North Asia, including Hong Kong.

The brain drain has worried the government for years, but the report's authors argue that the Australian diaspora can be used to the country's advantage if properly harnessed. 'We need to capitalise on their talent and goodwill,' said the report's co-author, Michael Fullilove, himself a recently returned expat. 'We need to draw them further into the mainstream, like the Irish, Indians and New Zealanders do with their diasporas.'

Among their recommendations is that Australian businesses should be taking more advantage of expats' local knowledge to tap overseas markets, and the government should be using them to expand Australia's international profile. The report also found that other Australians are strikingly positive in their attitude towards their globetrotting compatriots. There was none of the attitude of envy and resentment that the authors had expected.

While the report found that some expatriates find it hard to move back, it concluded that the phenomenon is mostly positive for Australia. A country which has absorbed immigrants from so many nations now appears to be exporting them. The Australian invasion looks like it is here to stay.