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We may like to snipe at Germaine et al, but we don't revile most expats

By Michael Fullilove - posted Thursday, 15 April 2004

The news that Australia's most famous expatriate, Rupert Murdoch, is moving News Corp's headquarters to the United States has prompted new mutterings about the old issue of expatriates and their commitment to this country.

If you were to judge from the noise generated by commentators and talkback callers on this question, Australians don't like their expatriates one bit.

Every now and again, prominent expats will poke their heads above the parapet and promptly have them shot off for their trouble. For example, several months ago Germaine Greer's (admittedly banal) article about Australian culture generated general outrage.


Murdoch and Greer are only two such culprits, however. In 2000, a feeding frenzy occurred around the broken body of international art critic Robert Hughes. Any adverse attention he might have received for his BBC documentary on Australia and his comments during a Western Australian court case was compounded by his sin of residing overseas. One commentator told us that Hughes's peers "have spent so much of their lives elsewhere that maybe we should stop calling them 'expatriates' and just see them as ignorant foreigners".

Other expats have received similar criticisms in recent times, raising the question of whether we are seeing a significant shift in Australian attitudes. Has the cultural pendulum, stuck for so long in the position of excessive regard for the opinion of outsiders, now swung the other way entirely? Are we in the grip of a new and more virulent strain of the tall-poppy syndrome, our traditional suspicion of high-flyers and big-noters? Are we suffering from "foreign poppy syndrome"?

As it happens, the answer is no. As part of a study of the policy implications of the Australian diaspora, the Lowy Institute commissioned UMR Research to conduct a telephone survey of Australians' attitudes to their expatriates.

Australia's offshore citizens represent a valuable resource: a market, a sales force, a constituency.

The results are striking.

It turns out that Australians are far more sanguine than we might have expected about their non-resident countrymen and women. Ninety-one per cent of the 1000 respondents agreed with the statement that expats are "adventurous people prepared to try their luck and have a go overseas", and only 6 per cent disagreed. Most respondents also believed that expats are successful: 75 per cent agreed they "are doing well for themselves away from home", and only 6 per cent disagreed.


By contrast, only 10 per cent of respondents believed that expats "have let us down by leaving Australia". On the issue of long-distance lectures, only 14 per cent of people agreed that expats "too often delight in running Australia down from offshore".

Far from sniping at expats, then, most of us support them.

There is a second insight from the survey: the existence of a generational shift, whereby younger people are more positively inclined than older people towards expatriates.

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This article was first published in The Age on 12 April 2004.

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About the Author

Michael Fullilove is Director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

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