Recently in London, the Prime Minister told a packed crowd of expatriates that they were needed in Australia, and urged them to consider moving back home.
I hope that not too many of them take his advice.
If ever there was a measure as to how far above its weight Australia punches on the world stage, it’s our vast, diverse, talented community of expats. More than a million Australians live overseas. In the world’s best universities and hospitals, in international financial centres, and in renowned theatres and galleries, you will inevitably hear an Aussie accent from someone in charge.
But when we hear about the achievements of our overseas-based citizens, the usual reaction is to lament the steadily growing “brain drain”. In turn, when our expats are asked if they plan to return home any time soon, many inevitably point to the lack of opportunities back in Australia, or the disparity in salary between what they might earn here compared to what they get paid elsewhere.
For many of our high achievers, the chance to work in the international arena is set up as a stark choice. Do you hold on to the comforts of home but forgo unique and life-changing international experiences? Or should you chase your dreams abroad but be forced to disconnect from the Australian community?
Are you one of us or one of them? Your call.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Our expatriates make an enormous economic and intellectual contribution, but very little of this benefits Australia. Like a vast mineral or gas deposit that is marked on all the maps but that nobody shows any interest in exploring, our overseas community largely sits there unused. Our expats are an incredibly rich but untapped resource.
Given all our successes and achievements at the international level, I believe the time has now come to mobilise the Australian diaspora, and to establish a co-ordinated framework through which our high-achieving expats can direct their knowledge and experience back home.
A simple, low-cost, starting point would be a federal government program of “Return Fellowships”, through which expats from a range of backgrounds could come home for repeated short visits - perhaps two to three months ar year for five successive years. Such a scheme would provide Australia with access to brilliant minds from prestigious overseas-based institutions, at a cost vastly lower than that needed to lure these people back home permanently.
Return Fellowships would also give our brightest international stars the chance to contribute to Australia’s economy, productivity and intellectual output, without forcing them to “choose” between the Australian and overseas experiences.
I envisage world-leading economists coming home to work with Australian policy makers on new approaches to employment and regulation. I see opportunities for our international composers and conductors to hold local workshops in which they mentor our up-and-coming musicians. I want some of our brilliant neuroscientists and radiologists based overseas to have the chance to co-supervise local PhD students, and to work with Australian medical researchers to fully exploit the latest developments in medical imaging and bioinformatics.
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