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Team Australia

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 14 February 2012

At the beginning of the 21st century approximately a million Australians and their families lived and worked overseas. Virtually all of them have high-level and desirable skills, and in the most diverse fashion. So there are technicians in Saudi Arabia, musicians and professors in Europe, engineers in Japan, journalists in London, actors in Hollywood, chefs in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, designers in Canada.

They have not gone away in disgust or because there is no work. Far from it - they are simply in demand. Those encountered are proud of their nationality and intend to come back, especially to raise a family. In London Australians seeking temporary work are assisted by a general reputation that Australians have a high work ethic and a pleasant manner, quite apart from high skill and educational levels.

This is something of a contrast from the 1970s, let alone the 1950s, when Australians overseas, especially in England, were seen frequently as noisy uncultured louts.


One estimate is that there are 6 million Americans living and working overseas, or about 2 per cent of the population. If that is correct the Australian proportion is about twice as high, being close to 5 per cent.

The world of the 21st century, we are constantly told, is to be a global world. On the evidence Australians seem to able to prosper in it, and there are enough of them for it to be suggested that they deserve a special seat in Parliament.

For every Australian abroad there is almost one foreign national in Australia. Not all immigrants want to become citizens. Australia has 900,000 permanent residents who are yet to seek naturalisation. But it also has about the same number of citizens who live and work in other countries, but who don’t, so far as we know, seek to become citizens of those countries.

From time to time ‘Australia’ looks like the team you belong to or the team you support, rather than an easily defined political society of which you are a citizen or a potential citizen.

It is plain that the world is becoming more global in the sense that people from all countries who have portable and precious skills find that they can move around the world and work. International travel is a way of life for millions around the world; many Australians now are affluent enough to consider the annual overseas holiday as simply part of their ordinary expenditure. The skilled young find they can move around the world improving their history and geography while earning a decent living.

Citizenship is, nonetheless, a nagging matter for the Australian government. Over the past twenty years a good deal of money has been spent in endeavouring to explain to adults and to school pupils why being a citizen is simply better and more honourable than just being a resident. The website of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs proclaims, in the language of a car salesman, ‘There has never been a better time to become an Australian citizen’.


Yet if citizenship involves taking an active interest in the affairs of the nation, then it is uncomfortably true that Australian citizens seem to have opted out of a lot of that. Less then 2 per cent belong to political parties; in the 1970s the comparable figure was closer to 4 per cent. Australian party membership figures are lower than those ruling in other democracies, mostly because compulsory voting removes the need for large teams of party workers to get the reluctant out of their houses on polling day.

It is worth noting, at the same time, that of the 17 countries considered in How Australia Compares, all but Japan showed the same decline over time: on average party membership has halved over thirty years. Active citizenship everywhere is much less obvious than it used to be.

The negotiation of a free trade agreement with the USA in 2004 exemplified the issue. Given that the American population is fifteen times larger than the Australian, and the disparity between the economies is even greater, a complete free trade agreement between the two countries might be thought to be something that could raise issues of nationhood for the smaller country. And indeed it appeared to, right up to the elections in October, when exit polls suggest that it finally didn’t matter at all.

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This article has been adapted from What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia (Allen&Unwin)

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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