When Will The Expats Come Home?


Right now, French people are toasting the legalisation of gay marriage. I just moved to France from the Netherlands. The Netherlands was the first country to legalise gay marriage in 2000. France just became the 14th — only marginally behind New Zealand.

Having lived in The Netherlands for three years, I saw first hand evidence of a country that is not shy of social change. From legalised marijuana and sex work, to right-wing Islamophobe Geert Wilders (head of The Netherlands' third-largest political party), the Dutch like to test new ground.

When I meet up with Australians living over here, progressive social policies such as marriage equality are typically met with praise. How does Australia fare, we ask ourselves. We dance around the topic – and then turn to the perennial question of when (not if) we will return home. If we are not asking ourselves the “return home” question, the Europeans will. Great weather and nature, a better economy, a better lifestyle (according to them). Why are we here and not there?

Property prices and the cost of living are a good start. With the Aussie dollar as high at is, those savings expat Aussies have been doling away in pounds or euros don’t look so hot.

This explosion in the cost of living is partly due to the mining boom that has arrested the country’s attention for the last decade. There is nothing wrong with making money, my fellow expats agree. But where is this money going?

The Liberal Party, if elected in September, is unlikely to dig into the miners’ pockets for public benefit. It will opt for cash-grab opportunities instead. At an April address to the Institute of Public Affairs with Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart and Andrew Bolt in attendance, Tony Abbott indicated his commitment to sell Medicare. Let’s not forget the IPA wants to add Australia Post, the ABC, SBS, CSIRO and the Snowy Hydro Scheme to the privatisation list.

Privatisation is a smelly 90s buzzword over here. The Europeans have come to realise that some public assets shouldn’t be sold; typically infrastructure, health, cultural, iconic or cash-generating assets the public or the government budget heavily depend on. They have recognised that once a public asset is sold it disappears from the arms of bureaucrats who have, in theory, the public’s interest at heart, into the arms of business people interested in growing profits.

The treatment of Indigenous people is another mute point in the conversation. We are often asked by Europeans to account for the treatment of Indigenous people and why current indicators point to disparities in income, life expectancy, health, incarceration rates… At least now we can limit the extent of our shame by reporting of bi-partisan will to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution.

And then there are our outstanding ties to the UK. The fact that we are still technically under the rule of a foreign monarchy is met with surprise over here. Haven’t we moved on? No. Not yet.

Prominent Dutch author, Arnon Grunberg, wrote in The New York Times in April: “Monarchy these days amounts to little more than a constitutionally compulsory form of performance art”. He referenced leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad’s description of the Dutch monarch as “state theatre”, mirroring minority opposition to it within the country. Why oppose theatre or performance art? Because there is a cost, Grunberg argues. For the Dutch monarch that cost equates to exorbitant salaries for royal family members at a time of crushing austerity. For Australia, what is the cost of remaining tied to England?

What about the promise of a better lifestyle back home? The members of the diaspora are wary. We know Australians in the big cities are working hard. A 2012 report by The Australia Institute suggests Australians are working some of the longest hours in the developed world despite the legislated 38-hour work week.

In Holland, the Dutch are clocking in an average of 31 hours per week despite their 38 hour benchmark, well under the French’s mandatory 35 hour week that appears to include long lunches at la brasserie. The promise of returning home and having to work harder does not appeal.

So for now, I and many other Australians based overseas, will stay where we are, saving up for our next, budget-deficit visit.

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.