Dealing with our diasporates


Watching Australians go for gold at the Athens Olympics “ and win lots of it “ it’s hard to escape the image of our nation as one that values sport above all else. In the Australian mind, it seems, to excel at sport is the ultimate ‘good’. There’s no chance of tall poppies being cut down to size if they win medals wearing green and gold. This enthusiastic celebration of Australian excellence doesn’t extend to all our offshore pursuits. Almost a million Australians now live and work abroad, most of them between 20 and 40 years of age. The overwhelming majority of these Australians are highly educated and highly skilled. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, scientists, artists, teachers, bankers, engineers, entrepreneurs and others. Some have moved for love, others just to experience life’s adventure more fully. These Australians are succeeding on the world stage every bit as much as our athletes. Their lives and careers should also be a source of national pride. They’ve left the small pond – the comfort zone of home, where it can be hard to fully appreciate where Australia sits in the world and to question what being Australian means. They’ve adapted to different conditions and environments, both professionally and personally. Not just to survive, but to succeed. These Australians shouldn’t be out of sight and mind back home, or written off as elitist, even disloyal, members of the ‘chattering classes’. Australia is the sum of all its citizens. And Australia has a sizeable diaspora “ one in twenty Australians. Almost everyone in Australia now has at least one Australian family member or friend who lives overseas. Our diaspora is a unique, ‘virtual’ community, with members in a million locations in hundreds of countries. The internet age has meant offshore Australians are better connected “ amongst themselves, and back into Australia “ than ever before. Mums and grandmas follow long tradition by mailing their far-flung Australian offspring calendars with koala bears and kangaroos for Christmas. But just staying in touch by email and phone with friends and family isn’t enough. Offshore Australians often passively follow political developments at home by reading newspapers online. Yet there’s a growing sense that this million can and should be more to Australia than it is now. In early 2000 the Southern Cross Group was formed in Brussels as a non-profit, volunteer-run international advocacy and support group for the Australian diaspora. Back then, our diaspora hadn’t begun to be recognised or quantified, let alone utilised. Today, the Australian media regularly refers to the ‘Australian diaspora’ and is starting to notice something’s going on out there. Expats made that happen. But there’s more work to be done. The diaspora raises various issues that need addressing by Australian society as a whole, by governments, and by industry. One is voting. Many offshore Australians “ not only those who plan to come home – would like to have their say in the next Federal election, and would have liked to have had a voice in the 1999 referendum on the Republic. But they are disenfranchised because they’ve dropped off the electoral roll. Australian law currently prevents them from re-enrolling from abroad if they’ve been away for more than three years. Can a law that denies the franchise to approximately half a million citizens of voting age be justified in modern Australia? Should that law be the subject of constitutional challenge? Without a Bill of Rights to fall back on, would our High Court ever find an implied right to vote in our archaic Constitution, to give these roaming Australian ambassadors their voices back? Without a more inclusive approach to our offshore citizens, we can’t be the best we can be. To understand what it means to be Australian today, we need to be more conscious of the fact that our diaspora is our global face. It is an extension of ourselves, an unexplored and intricate web of connections – physical, emotional and virtual, fanning out from our home shores, weaving our nation into the fabric of every other.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.