On the April morning I was due to start the punishing journey back to Australia, I woke with a minor ailment, one that could be quickly cured with antibiotics. “Don’t put yourself under pressure waiting here,” the hotel concierge advised. “See a doctor and get a prescription when you get to Heathrow.”
This sounded sensible. Airports are towns these days, places where you can shop and eat and drink to numb the tedium. But not - I soon discovered - see a doctor at the world’s busiest airport. Instead I was advised to go to accident and emergency at a nearby hospital, change my flight and lodge a complaint (first item on the BAA complaints menu).
“There are doctors at Australian airports, even third world airports have medical centres,” I fumed later to the steward onboard.
“Yes, that is one of the reasons I want to leave this country,” he said, “it just doesn’t work anymore. My wife and I really want to migrate to Australia, but we haven’t got family there, enough points to get in, or a spare $100,000 to invest to bump them up.”
The price of entry to Australia has risen over the past 220 years. Once the dumping ground for criminals and ne’er-do-wells, in the decades after World War II it became home for nearly seven million immigrants, many “ten pound Poms” wanting to start over in a sunny new country with a promising future. It is still the destination of choice for tens of thousands, last year more than 130,000 migrants arrived, a fifth from Britain. Australian cafes, shops, offices and hospitals are filled with British backpackers working their way around the country, undeterred by gruesome tales of murder in remote locations.
But the traffic is not all one way. More than a million Australians - one in 20 - live abroad, at least 300,000 of them in Britain.
The force field connecting the two countries is magnetic - it both attracts and repels. The pull of the cosmopolitan centre for those living in a country that former Prime Minister Paul Keating once described as the “arse-end of the earth”, is nothing new, it has operated since settlement.
Yet the scale of the current Australian Diaspora is unprecedented, drawing happy-go-lucky youngsters, the best and brightest graduates, high achievers and retirees seeking new challenges. Although researchers can only find a tenuous link between the political climate and emigration, undoubtedly many have left disappointed by the direction the country has taken since 1996. Big intercontinental moves need a push to amplify the pull.
Over the past decade under John Howard’s leadership Australia has become a much more cynical, unimaginative and materialistic place. Gone is the sense of crafting a unique environment, characterised by cultural diversity, openness, inclusiveness, Aboriginal reconciliation and a creative yet pragmatic approach to policy-making, most notably economic deregulation with a social net that provided the basis for the subsequent boom. The spirit captured by the Sydney Olympics and beamed to the world in 2000 has dissipated.
That outward-looking, self-confident Australia has become defensive, socially and culturally divided and domestically complacent. It still works better than most places, but it is no longer a demonstration project on the future.
Instead Australians have jettisoned much of their carefree larrikinism and learnt to be fearful, seeking solace in perfectly appointed homes bursting with appliances.
The country has grown fat on China’s insatiable appetite for minerals and energy, repaid in dollars and ever-cheaper consumer goods purchased with ballooning credit cards and mortgage redraws. The wealth generated by the long running boom - the quantum of tax revenue is unprecedented, even Treasury regularly revises its projections upwards - has not been directed into renewing social or economic infrastructure, or building social, educational or cultural capital. It has not been evenly distributed although almost everyone is better off.