Chapter Two - The Australian expatriates phenomenon
This chapter discusses certain aspects of the 'expatriates
- how 'expatriate' is defined;
- characteristics of expatriates;
- why Australians go overseas;
- why some expatriates stay overseas long-term or
- the implications for Australia.
Defining an expatriate
The Collins Australian Dictionary defines
an expatriate as 'a person who lives overseas'. The Federation Edition of the
Macquarie Dictionary defines the term 'expat' as 'someone living or working in
a country of which they are not a citizen'.
For the purposes of this inquiry, the Committee has
simply regarded as an expatriate any Australian citizen or other person with an
historic physical link to Australia
who is residing overseas. The duration of time the person has spent overseas is
not regarded as relevant.
Characteristics of expatriates
In general terms, Australian expatriates increasingly tend
to be young, highly skilled and highly educated. A recent analysis of the size and nature
expatriate population is contained in the report by Professor
and his colleagues (Hugo report). Determining the overall size
expatriate community has been problematic, and will be considered separately in
However, the Hugo report clearly showed,
from the evidence of the DIMIA movements database and the 2001 Census, that
emigrants were representative of particular groups. Of the long-term Australian
resident departures in 2002, over two-thirds were professionals,
para-professionals, managers or administrative occupations. Only 0.5 per cent
of males and 0.6 per cent of females were unemployed.
Again, from the evidence of the DIMIA movements
database for 2001-02, expatriates were also predominantly young: some 51.6 per
cent of long-term Australian resident departures were between the ages of 20
and 34, and overwhelmingly for this age group, their destination was the United
Kingdom (UK). In fact, the UK
appears to be the destination of choice for expatriates more generally – the UK
accounts for at least 25 per cent of Australians leaving on a permanent and
long-term basis. Other popular
destinations include Western Europe (particularly Greece),
Asia, the United States (US) and New
The Hugo report noted that the number of Australians
emigrating to Asia has increased by more than 50 percent
in recent years.
Within the broad expatriate community, there are also numerous
subgroups, each with their own characteristics and concerns, which may or may
not overlap. Major subgroups include working holidaymakers; Australians working
abroad on a longer-term or indefinite basis; naturalised Australians who have returned
to their place of birth; and Australians who are residing abroad for family
reasons. And, as outlined above, in recent years, one of the most significant
subgroups to emerge has been young, highly skilled, well-educated, high earning
Australians – who have been described as 'gold collar workers'.
These groupings are infinitely flexible, with working
holidaymakers in particular regularly metamorphosing into long-term or
permanent expatriates, for employment or family reasons. At the same time, the
overall return rate for Australian residents who say they are leaving long-term
or permanently is about 75 per cent.
It is noted that the concerns of the long-term expatriates are not necessarily
similar to those who have been away only a short while.
Why Australians go overseas
Evidence from submissions
On the evidence submitted, the Committee noted that
Australians went abroad for a wide variety of reasons. These reasons could
broadly be categorised as relating to better employment opportunities, more
financially rewarding work, study opportunities, travel opportunities, and family
issues. In many, if not most, cases, these factors were not mutually exclusive.
Some submitters, particularly academic researchers,
cited the opportunity to work in leading overseas research establishments, with
the top professionals in the field, and with significantly superior
infrastructure support, as the main reason for their decision to expatriate. Other submitters felt that there were few
openings in their chosen fields in Australia,
and that overseas offered their only genuine employment opportunities. The need for overseas experience to
pave the way for career advancement was often cited. Others mentioned the challenge of
testing their abilities in a complex working environment in a different culture, while still others pointed to the scale
of opportunities awaiting abroad, or
the proximity to other vibrant economies.
The higher salaries often available elsewhere was
frequently cited. For some, this was the reason for expatriating, but for
others it was a pleasant surprise when they got there. The Australian Business
Council in the Gulf, which surveyed its members as to their reasons for working
in the Persian Gulf, found the combination of higher
salary levels and lower taxes to be the predominant reason. Some individuals made no bones of the
fact that they were working abroad specifically to pay off the mortgage on
their Australian home, to buy an investment property, and generally to set
themselves up financially as early in life as possible, and faster than they
could hope to do so in Australia.
Another large group of expatriates left initially to
study abroad, frequently on some form of scholarship or bursary. Others chose to study abroad because
their chosen course was unavailable in Australia.
Travel opportunities, often in conjunction with work or
study, were frequently cited as a reason for going abroad. As Mr
put it, 'Australians like to travel. We're good at it. We're flexible and adaptable
and inquisitive.' Many shared the
motivation of Mr Barton
Guthrie, who left by boat in the 1960s to
'broaden [his] horizons and to see the world'.
A smaller subset of expatriates travelled and lived
abroad to experience life in the birthplace of a parent, or to connect with
their family history. Others went in
part to give their children the experience of living in a different culture. Another considerable proportion of
expatriates were accompanying partners, the so-called 'trailing spouses'.
The 'pull' factors, or the attractions of going abroad,
were not the exclusive reasons for leaving Australia.
Some felt a decided 'push' from their homeland, again for a variety of reasons.
Prominent amongst them were the Australian tax system, and a perception that intellectual
endeavour was undervalued.
Evidence from the Hugo 2002 survey
The Hugo report contains one of the
few quantitative attempts to assess the expatriates phenomenon (the Hugo
survey). The aim of the Hugo survey
was to more fully understand the emigration process and to assess its economic
and social implications. As Professor Hugo
pointed out, his survey was biased towards more recent professional graduates,
and those who were linked to alumni or support organisations; and to those who
are on the Internet. The Committee
notes that the Hugo survey did not take into account European
migrants to Australia
in the 1950s (and their children) who have now returned to their countries of
origin to stay, but who still retain strong links with Australia.
The Lowy report noted that this group of expatriates, resident in countries
such as Greece,
Italy and Lebanon,
make up nearly one quarter of the Australian global expatriate community.
The Hugo survey showed that the prime
stated motivation for emigration for both men and women was 'better employment
opportunities'. This was supported
by the submissions to this inquiry. This is perhaps to be expected, given the
sample concerned, but also reflects the growing global opportunities now open
to capable persons worldwide. Table 2.1 also highlights the extent of the
'trailing spouse' (and primarily female spouse) phenomenon, from a sample which
might not have been expected to produce such a result. It is unclear how many
of the Hugo sample involved 'working holiday' expatriates, a
factor which may have influenced the 'lifestyle' response.
Table 2.1 Reasons given by male and female respondents for emigration
(percentage indicating 'yes' to a list of specified reasons)
Reasons ranked by popularity of total response
Better employment opportunities
Overseas job transfer
To be close to family/friends
To establish/expand business
Source: Emigration Survey 2002, Hugo report, p.
Clearly, the reasons for expatriating are many and
varied, and one cannot discount an element of post-hoc rationalisation of the
decision. 'Pull' factors (the appeal of abroad) appear to outweigh 'push'
factors (a dislike of aspects of Australian life), though the latter were well
Why some Australian expatriates stay overseas
long-term or permanently
Despite their intentions on leaving Australia,
many Australian expatriates do not return on a permanent basis. DIMIA, and
those researchers using the DIMIA movements database, have noted the extent of
category jumping between the 'permanent' and 'long-term' departure categories.
A number of 'long-term' departures are back within two years. On the other hand, numerous submitters
to this inquiry explained that they had left for a short working holiday and many
years later were still away. The
stated reasons that keep them there were many and varied, and broadly echoed
the reasons they left in the first place. Some of these reasons are examined
Some expatriates felt there was little choice but to
remain overseas if they wished to remain in their current field of work. As Dr
stated, 'In order to pursue an international career in academic medicine, I
virtually have to forsake any dreams of returning home'. Dr
a gerontologist who specialises in the management of difficult behaviours
associated with Alzheimer's disease, believed the only openings for her in Australia
were in administration, rather than research.
Others valued the working conditions overseas. Professor
working in the cognitive neuroscience field, lauded the level of support
funding, in his case in Canada. Another submittor told the Committee that:
I am at the premier research institution in my field; it is
easier and less expensive to attend conferences and meetings from the US;
and the potential to attract significant research funding is very good.
Remuneration and financial issues
Some expatriates nominated remuneration as their primary
reason for remaining overseas. A former Ansett pilot, Mr Andrew Ferguson, now
happily settled and employed in Hong Kong, told the Committee he was earning
double his former Australian salary for the same work, paid less tax, received
assistance towards buying a home, and had his private health care and
children's education paid for. Another
submitter raised the spectre of his HECS debt, which he viewed as 'a tax on
Friends and family
Self-evidently, it is easier for single people to move
from country to country than it is for those with families. Once partnered and
with children, and particularly if partnered with an overseas national for whom
entry to Australia
or work in Australia
might be difficult, many of our expatriates stay put. Mr Neale Ferguson, who left Australia
with a five-year plan while his children were in primary school, now accepts
'we may be here for a longer time than expected' and has commenced planning for
college and retirement.
The lure of the lifestyle
For some, the cultural opportunities presented by
living abroad were simply too inviting to leave. The exposure to other cultures was the
attraction for many, while the ready opportunities for travel was mentioned by
others who found Australia's
location too isolated.
Perhaps the most telling reason for remaining overseas
was advanced by Mr Richard
Baxter, who told the Committee that with the
increasing amount of time one spends abroad, the development of personal and
professional ties increasingly precludes a return to Australia. Or as Ms
from Hong Kong told the Committee:
We did not anticipate we would stay expatriates for as long as
we have, but like so many before us the initial lure of becoming an expatriate – to 'escape' Australia's
high tax environment so we could save some money – has evolved into a happy and
Having tasted success in business in the UK,
To give it all up with a view towards starting in business all
over again back home struck me/us as being too great a decision to make (and a
possibly risky one).
Or as Dr Richard
Whitfield told the Committee, after two
years in Hong Kong, he remained there because of work
opportunities; after five years, he remained because of friendships he had
built up; and now he remains because he believes, rightly or wrongly, that his
working experience would not be adequately valued if he moved back to Australia.
The above reasons for remaining abroad are, again, not
mutually exclusive. Some expatriates may also have a genuine fear of returning,
particularly if they have lost their connections. Many doubted they would find
any job, let alone a well-paying or satisfying one. Some expatriates stay
abroad because they felt they have no other option, due to family illness or
commitments. Some stay abroad unhappily. Others felt that they would be the
victim of the tall poppy syndrome (which some have dubbed the 'foreign poppy
syndrome') on their return to Australia. The decision to go abroad, to stay abroad
or to return to the homeland is, essentially, an individual decision, and one
which will reflect the individual's personal life priorities.
Still call Australia
Before engaging in a consideration of the public policy
issues concerning expatriates, the Committee was interested to learn whether
they regarded Australia
as their homeland. Based on the responses to this inquiry, the answer overwhelmingly
Many submitters provided instances of their continuing
attachment to Australian ways, and things Australian. Some noted that it has
become much easier in recent years to maintain links with Australia.
For example, Dr Jill
Walker submitted that:
In many ways it's become easier to be an Australian abroad now
than it was when I was growing up. The cost of calling home has dropped
dramatically, and email and the web make it so much easier to keep up with
what's going on in Australia.
Even travel is cheaper and easier ...
Indeed, submitters frequently mentioned the Internet,
as a means of keeping in touch with family, friends and Australian news and
events. As Professor Hugo
... people going away these days can keep a much stronger linkage
with the home country. Going overseas is no longer as big a cut from the
homeland as it previously was. In all the qualitative interviews I did with
Australians overseas I was struck by how up they were with things in Australia,
through the Internet and through reading newspapers at the same time as people
read them. They knew the football scores. They knew what was happening in
politics. So they could engage very readily with the home community.
The Hugo survey also sought to
ascertain how many of his sample of expatriates still called Australia
home. The survey found that 79.3 per cent did so, with women more so than men
(84.7 per cent to 75.1 per cent). Not surprisingly, this weakened with time
away – only 67 per cent of those who left before 1990 said yes; and only 53 per
cent of respondents aged 65 or more agreed.  The Hugo report found
... the majority [of expatriate Australians] have definite plans
to return to Australia and the great majority (even of those who intend to
remain overseas) still consider Australia home and have very strong commitments
and feelings toward Australia.
Implications for Australia
Brain drain or brain gain?
We live in mobile times. Impediments to overseas travel
and employment have increasingly been removed and most governments of advanced
economies are facilitating the movement of skilled persons across their
borders. As a consequence, there has been a massive increase in the
international transfer of highly skilled managerial and professional workers. It is by no means a uniquely
While a large number of skilled Australian workers emigrate
overseas every year, it appears that this loss is more than offset by the
arrival of skilled migrants to Australia.
DIMIA's submission indicated that, over the past five years, Australia
has increasingly experienced a net gain of skilled migrants. For example, 'the
net inflow of skilled workers in 2002-03, as a result of immigration and
emigration, was some 36,260.' Other
recent research has also concluded that the overall balance of movement of
skilled persons (defined as those reporting managerial, professional, associate
professional and trade occupations) remains in Australia's
favour. This is despite a loss of skilled Australian residents over the
five-year period to 2002-03, equivalent to about five per cent of the stock of
employed professionals in Australia
as of 2001. However, it appears that
suffered a net loss in the category of 'other natural and physical science
professionals' of around 11 per cent.
The Hugo report also concluded that 'overall, Australia
undoubtedly experiences a brain gain.'
reiterated this in evidence to the Committee: 'Quantitatively, we do have a net
gain from migration; there is no question of it'. 
At the same time, the qualitative impacts of the flow
of skilled workers are less certain. As the recent Lowy report explained,
'Australian and foreign workers may not be perfect substitutes'. Similarly, the Hugo report
cautioned that 'the differences between incoming and outgoing flows in levels
and types or expertise and training need to be distinguished'. Professor
Hugo suggested that:
... we do not know too much about the people who go. If those
people are the brightest and the best—if they are that really top group of
achievers; if they are the people who, if they stayed here, could really make
the difference in making the social and economic breakthroughs which improve
the country—then one person does not equal one person ... I would really like a
more nuanced understanding of who is leaving.
concluded that we still need to gain a better understanding of 'how we are
being impacted by this new migration'.
The Committee's view
Clearly, the expatriates phenomenon is significant and
the trend towards greater international movements and an increasingly
globalised workforce is likely to
continue. This presents both opportunities and new considerations for
Australian policymakers. For example, expatriates could be seen as an
'underutilised national asset'. At
the same time, the needs and concerns of this considerable portion of the
Australian community must also be considered.
Some of the opportunities and issues presented by the
expatriates phenomenon will be considered in subsequent chapters of this report.
However, the next chapter will first consider the size of the Australian expatriate
community, and how this number is determined.