Chapter Four - Communication, policy formulation, and the role of Government
In the course of the inquiry the Committee received
evidence that expatriate Australians have a wide range of concerns, including
taxation issues, superannuation, medical insurance, social security, and
repatriation. This chapter, however, focusses on evidence of a single
overarching concern about difficulties obtaining access to information, in
relation to all of these issues. Many felt that governments, in particular the
Federal Government, could be doing a much better job of disseminating
information and communicating with expatriates.
This chapter also discusses concerns that there is a
lack of coordination of government policy in relation to expatriates. Specific
areas of concern in relation to policy areas are discussed in following
Communication, access to information, and use of the Internet
Expatriates are affected by, and need information
about, a wide range of government services, including:
- voting eligibility and access;
- social security;
- agreements with other countries about taxation,
social security, working holidays and other matters;
- expatriate return schemes; and
- Australian consular services in the country in
which they reside.
In this age of sophisticated information technology,
the Internet is a key source of information about government services. Many
Australians, both resident and non-resident, use the Internet to obtain
information about and interact with government. For those Australians living
overseas the Internet is crucial as a source of information.
Concern was expressed during the course of the inquiry that
it was often difficult for expatriates to find relevant information online because
services were provided by a wide range of departments and agencies, and it was
often a challenge trying to pinpoint exactly where to go. The SCG submitted
While the standard of the individual Australian Government
websites is very high by world standards, there are very few links between websites
and to the uninitiated seeker of information they represent a tangled web which
is difficult to penetrate without a detailed understanding of the
Administrative Arrangements Order and the machinery and structure of
The SCG also observed that navigating this 'tangled
web' of government websites is difficult even for those living in Australia,
and the difficulties are multiplied for those outside Australia
who do not have the ability to drop into a local shopfront. Telephoning a toll-free number which
is only accessible within Australia
is also not an option.
A web portal?
The submission from Advance - Australian Professionals
(Advance) pointed out that there was a need for a central web portal targeted
There is no comprehensive portal which provides resources, via
one portal (and not through a range of government departments), with respect to
issues and materials of interest to expats, particularly those wishing to
return home (e.g., re-entry requirements for spouses / partners; job
opportunities; transferability of pension entitlements; taxation issues etc.).
The Committee notes that the Federal Government
maintains the website www.australia.gov.au, which is the primary
gateway for Australian government services and information. It includes (after
navigating three clicks into the website) a page titled 'Australians Abroad'.
Whilst this webpage is useful, it functions merely as a collection of links to
government departments and agencies. DFAT's www.smartraveller.gov.au
website also includes a page of links, as well as a page of 'Essential
information for Australians living and working overseas'. Again, however, it is
difficult to navigate to these pages, with their presence not apparent when
looking at the 'smartraveller' home page.
The Committee notes that the Federal Government has
recognised the need to create and maintain dedicated web portals for specific
groups of Australians. Under the 'Customer Focussed Portals Framework', a
number of web portals have been developed which allow easy online access to
government information and services for specific customer groups, in the one
place, without users having to know which government agency to contact.
According to the body responsible for these web
portals, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), the
framework has been developed in recognition of the rapid growth of the Internet
and the confusion that may result for users when trying to find information. This new framework is in addition to
the Australian government's existing web presence:
These portals will not replace the existing set of agency-based
and subject-oriented websites. The portals will complement these sites and
place them in a customer-oriented framework.
Web portals already developed include sites for the
The web portals are specifically created for their
customer groups, and each has been developed by a consortium of agencies headed
by a lead agency. The Community Portal, for example, is administered by the
Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS). The portals include
informative pages on issues of relevance, written specifically for the target
group by the responsible agency, rather than just providing a link to that responsible
agency. Some of the portals include additional capabilities, such as the
ability for groups to have their own websites linked in to the portal (for
example the Families Portal), and the inclusion of a discussion board, where
users can discuss issues and share ideas (for example the Regional Portal).
The Committee notes that expatriate Australians are a
growing customer group that would greatly benefit from the existence of a web
portal. This is especially so, given that physical distance prevents them from
access to government offices. A web portal for expatriates could include the
- news from Australia directly relevant to
expatriates, for example regarding changes in citizenship laws, voting
registration for overseas voters, and changes in tax law relevant to overseas
- links to websites of expatriate groups and
- links to professional groups that foster
interaction between expatriates and their counterparts in Australia;
- links to state government websites that give
information about state-sponsored schemes for creating business and
professional linkages between expatriates and Australian academic institutions
and business groups;
- discussion forums for expatriates;
- information about all government services that
affect expatriates, such as taxation, superannuation, and health insurance; and
- links to overseas missions, and to mission-based
online profile registration as discussed below.
The SCG and Advance also suggested that a regular email
newsletter could be issued with news of particular interest to expatriates,
such as changes in legislation affecting them, and arrangements for forthcoming
elections. Expatriates could
subscribe to this newsletter through the web portal.
Enhancing mission websites?
The Committee received evidence of useful
collaborations between expatriate Australians and their local foreign missions
in promoting Australia's
interests overseas. Evidence was also received, however, that there was
potential for improved communication between mission staff and expatriates. This
matter, and discussion of the wider issue of the relationship between overseas
posts and Australian expatriate communities is discussed in Chapter 9.
The Committee notes that websites for Australian
foreign missions include a range of information for Australians overseas, and
all include a link to the DFAT online registration service (ORAO). As discussed
earlier in this report, ORAO is focussed on the need to be able to contact
Australians in the event of an emergency.
The Committee considers that there is potential for
missions to engage more with local Australian expatriates, and at the same time
to better utilise their skills. Consideration should be given to a system of
online registration additional to ORAO, whereby expatriates could register
online with their local mission. This arrangement would allow expatriate
Australians to register as having specialist skills in certain areas or
professions, or as working or living in particular geographic regions.
The establishment of such a system of online profile
registration would enable missions to establish a useful database of skilled
local Australian expatriates, available to be called on in relation to
activities promoting Australia and Australian business. Missions could also use
this register to provide notification of upcoming events and business
opportunities. The Committee notes DFAT's concerns that any expansion of the
departmental emergency-contact focussed ORAO registration service may undermine
the effectiveness of ORAO as a crisis management tool. The proposed profile database should
not affect ORAO: it would be separate from ORAO and would be mission-based.
The Committee notes that at least one government at the
state level has responded to the expatriate phenomenon, and has initiated a
system of online profile registration as part of its response. The Victorian government
has established a multi-purpose network, the Victorian Expat Network (VEN),
with a website which aims to facilitate international collaboration, build
business opportunities and encourage knowledge exchange. The website allows
members of the network to register their skills profiles online. Some 300
members have registered with VEN, half of whom are based in the US. The network also provides expatriate
members with news and information about Victoria
and issues monthly electronic newsletters.
Lack of coordination of government policy
A number of submissions observed that issues of concern
to expatriates were the responsibility of many different government agencies.
Some also expressed concern that there was no coordination of government
policy. This was despite evidence that the expatriate population is large, and
continuing to grow. For the many expatriates who felt very strongly linked with
lack of recognition added to a sense of exclusion. The SCG submitted:
... responsibility for the many and varied issues of concern to [expatriates]
[is] fragmented across a wide range of Commonwealth Government agencies.
Frequently one feels there is a culture in the agencies that follows the over
there, out of mind philosophy that seems to be prevalent in the general
populace. Add to this the difficulty in tracking down information at the State
and local government level, and it is not surprising that many in the Diaspora
have a feeling of exclusion from their homeland.
The sense of exclusion created by a perceived lack of
government coordination of service delivery translates into a wider, symbolic
sense of being left out. The Lowy report describes the way the leaders of some
countries reach out and embrace their expatriate populations rhetorically,
making addresses affirming their citizens abroad as 'a rich source of
international influence and goodwill' (Ireland), and
as 'ambassadors in the countries you have chosen to make home.' (India) The
Lowy report contrasts this inclusive approach with the 'muted' response of Australia's
Australian leaders ... have been relatively muted on the subject
of the diaspora. Prime Minister John
Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer have spoken about the importance of
protecting Australians abroad, but there has been no coordinated effort to
embrace the diaspora rhetorically.
The Lowy report
suggests that Australia's
national leaders need to articulate clearly the value Australia
places on its expatriates, thus drawing them 'more fully into the mainstream of
our national life.'
A number of submitters called for the development of a
formal expatriates policy by the Federal Government. Professor
Hugo was one of them. In an increasingly
globalising world, and with roughly one-twentieth of our population not within
our national borders, he saw the need for a policy which paved the way for a
greater inclusion of expatriates in the national culture and which increased
the strength of the linkages between expatriates and Australia.
also called for more research into the expatriates phenomenon to assist with
policy development. The Advance
organisation noted the trends revealed by Professor
Hugo's initial research and called for
additional demographic research to complete the profile of the Australian
expatriate community. Advance further recommended research to establish the
economic contribution of the expatriate community to Australia.
Advance submitted that a coordinated approach to
expatriates policy was needed:
We recommend Australia
develop a comprehensive emigration policy. This policy needs to consider the
- Means to ensure that Australia remains an
attractive destination for the world's professionals, scientists, artists and
entrepreneurs and home grown talent in particular;
- Means to ensure that Australians abroad are
assisted in keeping in touch with Australia, its interests, development and
- Obstacles to the return of home grown talent are
- Active strategies are employed to engage
Australians abroad in Australian commercial, artistic and scientific
development of Australia.
A number of suggestions were made as to ways to address
this lack of coordination of policy. Some submissions referred to measures
taken by other countries regarding their expatriates, and drew attention to the
existence in some countries of administrative and policy units dedicated to
expatriates' affairs. Chapter 8 of this report considers arrangements in other
Several proposals were made to the Committee for some
kind of Federal Government unit dedicated to coordination and development of
policy in relation to Australian expatriates. Advance recommended a unit for
expatriate affairs, under the foreign affairs or science and technology
portfolios, with a steering committee comprising representation from Austrade,
the Australian Tourism Commission, the Australian Wine Bureau, and the
departments covering education, technology, industry and science.
also saw merit in the establishment of a coordinating unit across several
government agencies, probably residing administratively under DFAT. In
identifying the lack of a coordinated government approach to interacting with
the expatriate community, the Lowy report argued that the bureaucratic focus
needed to be sharpened, and recommended the creation of a coordinating unit
While recognising the need for a coordinating body, the
SCG took a slightly different administrative approach, recommending the
establishment of an 'Australian diaspora council' to coordinate legislation and
policy directly affecting Australians overseas.
MacGregor expanded on the proposal:
What we would like to see initially established is some type of
council with representatives from Australian agencies and, perhaps, important
Australian community groups, as well as Australian groups and individuals
overseas ... that would firstly be a focal point for, perhaps, developing a web
portal that coordinated all the useful information from all the different
agencies and other organisations. There could also be a point of reference for
those who had particular diaspora issues. Complaints and suggestions and so
forth could be focused and sent in to that body. That body could also conduct
research as to how the diaspora might be politically represented in Australia
in the long term ...
In response to the suggestion of a dedicated
expatriates unit, a representative of DFAT commented:
The question of whether a case can be made for some part of the
bureaucracy here to manage the interests of the expatriate community is not
something that DFAT has given any particular thought to, but I think it would
depend very much on how you defined the role of that kind of body.
The DFAT representative went on to comment that any
role involving the advocacy of the interests of Australian expatriates was
'well beyond the competency of DFAT'.
Suggestions were also made for dedicated representation
of expatriates at the ministerial level. The Australian New Zealand American
Chambers of Commerce (ANZACC) called for the appointment of a junior minister
to represent the special interests of expatriates, an appointment which 'would
be a clear signal to Australian expatriates that the government is taking their
needs seriously'. Representatives
of the Victorian Government put forward a similar proposal, telling the
[Appointment of a minister] would provide recognition of the
role that the expatriate community can play as ambassadors for Australia,
enable the development of a coordinated policy and strategies for maximising
the value of the expatriate community to Australia's economic, social and
cultural interests, and augment the efforts of state governments and the
private sector and encourage resource-sharing and coordination of efforts
between the Commonwealth and the states.
The Committee notes the suggestions put forward, and agrees
that there is a need for a coordinated Federal Government response to address
the needs and concerns of the growing community of Australians living overseas.
The increasing global movement of Australian citizens has ramifications not
just for Australia's
place in the global economy, but also for our understanding of ourselves as
Australians and how as a society we embrace our citizenry. As such there is a
clear role for the Federal Government.
The Committee supports calls for the establishment of a
policy coordination unit focussed on expatriate affairs within the Federal Government,
specifically within DFAT. As evidence in the following chapters will
illustrate, there are many issues of concern for expatriates which reflect the
need for such a body.