Why Generation Ex-pat can help Generation Export

From a country of merely 21 million people, a whopping one million Aussies are overseas. Rather than being a ‘brain drain’, these expats are boosting the home-grown brand.

At the recent Oscar night in Los Angeles, as with every Oscar night, we saw a large contingent of Australia actors such as Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Toni Collette, and Russell Crowe (OK he’s Australasian) strolling the red carpet.


In fact, one year, the Aussies won so many awards that US actor Tom Hanks said: “There must be something in the vegemite!”


The stars are also out in force at the G’day USA annual celebration of all things Australian held each year in the US, which was set up to help boost Australian trade and investment. G’day USA has now grown a life of its own thanks to the active Australian expatriate community in the US and is likely to be imitated by some other countries where there are many Australians living and working.


So why are there so many Australians living and working in Hollywood and elsewhere in the US? The number has certainly been boosted by the E-3 visa, which was set up by the US Congress specifically for up to 10,500 Australian business people and professionals seeking to live and work temporarily in the United States.


Australians with an E-3 can work in the United States, with employer sponsorship, without having to enter the “green card lottery”. In addition, their spouses can also work. Before this change, Australians were rolled into global quotas under different visa categories – the quota for the E-3 visa applies to Australians only.


Australians are now in a special position in the United States and many Aussies can follow their movie star compatriots by chasing their own dreams in America.


However, while all this is going on, Australians can be “once-were-worriers”. Many of us see a black cloud on every silver lining. True to form, a great Aussie worry of late is this issue of “too many expatriates”.


Accordingly, whenever we see Aussies on the red carpet or doing well in business or universities overseas, these great achievements become magically turned into a debate whether we are suffering a “brain drain”. Many are concerned about the “expat problem” and it always seems to rage when one of our most famous expats like Germaine Greer or Clive James returns home and give the rest of the citizenry a bit of free advice.


It is true that there are quite a few Aussie expats. According to Michael Fullilove, the author of World wide webs – Diasporas and the international system from the Lowy Institute, Australia’s expatriate community is on the rise. “There are approximately one million Australians outside Australia on any given day,” he says. “Perhaps three-quarters of these people – that is, as many people as there are in Tasmania and the ACT combined – are living on a permanent or long-term basis in a foreign country.”


But is there an expat “problem”? Is it a brain drain or brain gain? When the focus is not on Germaine or Clive, it is on the exodus of scientists or skilled professionals from our shores. Much of it centres on the loss of ideas or scientific research that is commercialised offshore instead of in Australia.


However, much of the talk about expats fails to see some of the positive aspects of having a strategic network of Aussies overseas – many in high and influential places or centres of knowledge and innovation.


For instance, on the commercial side of things, having Aussies abroad can help our trade and business links. There are economic benefits to having around one million Aussies overseas when our total population is just over 21 million. Expats can help grow exports. According to Austrade research, 50% of all new exporters enter international markets “by accident” – that is through a chance meeting, networking event or over the internet. Accordingly, “clusters” of networks in major Australian export destinations are important sources of contacts for new exporters.


As Michael Fullilove says, the expatriate community “is a national asset that could be better utilised. Australia should take steps to engage the expatriate community more fully in our national life.”


Of course, in big markets like New York and Los Angeles, expat networks are well established. But it is not just in the usual places that Aussie expat organisations flourish. For instance, in Bangkok, the “Sundowners Club” meets regularly.

In Eastern Europe too, the Aussie expats are doing their thing. For instance, in Romania, there is a fledging Australian business community in Bucharest. One leading member of the Australian community there, Andrew Begg runs Vivid, a magazine for expatriates in Romania, which has really taken off in Bucharest.


Begg says: “With the increased numbers of westerners moving into town I thought the time was right for a new type of magazine that talks about national and international politics, but also lifestyle issues plus the usual quota of local gossip. We’ve been overwhelmed at the response,” he says.


Begg expects to return to Australia “eventually” but at the moment says: “I’m having too much fun here with all the excitement. And I don’t get too homesick.” The Australian activities include some religious ceremonies too. “ A group of us get together for the AFL Grand Final each year, no one’s allowed to know the score, and we watch the taped game as if it were live at 2.30pm Saturday afternoon in Bucharest!” says Begg.


Australians also do particularly well in the Middle East, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) becoming a major focus for Australian business professionals. According to Kym Hewett, Australia’s Senior Trade Commissioner to the UAE: “There are over 15,000 Aussies here, compared to about 3000 six years or so ago. Dubai acts as a hub for business to the rest of the Middle East, so much of the trade and investment passes through here.”


In fact the Australian Football League (AFL) recently staged the first NAB Cup game between Collingwood and Adelaide and drew a crowd of 6000 at a converted polo field.


In conclusion, in an increasingly globalised world, Australians should expect that opportunities will take them overseas and that we should not lament the growth of our expat community but rather take advantage of it – from Bangkok to Bucharest, and Dubai to Dublin.


Our strong skills base and multicultural society means that Australia has a lot to offer the world, and the growth of professional services in our export account means that inevitably a lot of our expertise will be offshore (and ultimately helping us back home).


So when you are cheering on the glitterati at the Oscars or maybe the literati in London and New York, think of our many other Aussie expatriates helping to build exports and investment offshore to help raise living standards for the rest of us back home.




*Tim Harcourt is chief economist at Austrade and author of The Airport Economist www.austrade.gov.au/economistscorner

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