December 19, 2006 – 11:49AM
The exodus of one million Australians seeking work overseas is not a national brain drain but a brain gain, says federal Treasurer Peter Costello.
Launching the inaugural Advance 100 Leading Global Australians Summit in Sydney, Mr Costello said it was in the national interest for Australians to work overseas.
The Advance summit brings together 100 prominent expatriate Australians from business, the public sector and the arts, including astronaut Andy Thomas, Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin, comedian Clive James, author Kathy Lette and former foreign minister Gareth Evans.
“Sometimes you hear the criticism of this country that skilled Australians are going overseas to work,” Mr Costello told delegates.
“This criticism is nonsense.
“Young talented Australians overseas are not a loss to this country, they are a great national asset.”
After learning new skills and gaining invaluable overseas experience, research showed a high proportion of expatriates returned to Australia for family and retirement, 75 per cent within two years of leaving.
Australians who went to the UK to work had a return rate of 85 per cent, Mr Costello said.
Of the one million expatriates living and working abroad, one-quarter was in the United Kingdom and Ireland, another quarter in continental Europe, one-seventh was in North America and the remainder in the Asia-Pacific.
These were typically young, highly educated, highly skilled people who cited employment opportunities and professional development as the greatest reason for moving offshore, Mr Costello said.
Mr Costello said the movement of Australians across international borders enriched the nation's heritage as an immigrant country.
Forty per cent of Australians had at least one parent born overseas, and most migrants were “highly motivated” people with a “burning desire to succeed in their new country,” he said.
The re-emergence of China and India as global superpowers posed great opportunities, with 1.3 million Australians claiming Asian ancestry – more than Greek, Italian and Maltese combined.
Australians were also used to participating in the cultures of others, and didn't suffer the “insularity of being raised in a globally dominant country”, Mr Costello said.
Since his first APEC meeting in 1996, where Australia's future was dubbed the “poor white trash of Asia”, Mr Costello said the nation had proved itself.
It had moved from being a closed, insular, union-dominated, “fearful” country to a respected global player.
“We are a small country by population, we have less than one-third of one per cent of the globe's population,” he said.
“But we are the 16th-largest economy in the world, we have substantial respect in global fora.”
However, people were the country's greatest asset, Mr Costello said.
“Expats make a major contribution to promoting our country and explaining it to the world,” he said.
The treasurer couldn't resist a joke when, midway through his speech, he was interrupted by a test of the emergency address system.
“Nobody stands on ceremony in Australia,” Mr Costello quipped.
“They will interrupt anybody.”