Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Playing devil’s advocate

There’s something in the air again about the academic and young professional “brain drain” and the “unpatriotic” expat intelligentsia. Beth’s had some great posts on the debate, and I basically agree with everything Beth’s had to say.

But the more I think about it, as young professional expat hopefully about to start a PhD in the UK, the more I think the debate risks being fundamentally misconceived and – in a word – parochial.

First off, from where I sit, I do not see people leaving Australia forever. Sure, some do. More, I suspect, gain skills and experience overseas and return with them to Australia – surely a plus.

I also don’t understand why we now have a reverse cultural cringe about expat intellectuals and feel compelled to denigrate any efforts by the likes of Greer, Hughes or Carey to contribute to Australian debates as “out of touch” or as having let the side down by working overseas (especially when like most people working in foreign countries, they probably repatriate a chunk of their income).

Okay, a blogosphere example. Beth, Lyn and I all went to uni and lived most/all of our childhoods or high-school days in the Canberra region. I am now in the UK, Beth is in Melbourne (as I was happily for some time), Lyn is in Sydney.

Is moving inter-state a betrayal of “local” roots in Canberra? No-one would make that argument. But the nation is a “natural” community, isn’t it?

I seriously hope not. The vibrancy of Australian culture comes in large part from a rich migrant tradition. We embrace multiculturalism (and skilled migration) but still see “leaving” as some sort of personal failing. Again, there could be a parochialism at the root of this: “Well, of course people want to come here, but why would they want to leave?”

Also the debate is essentialist. It treats people as having only their national identity and ignores other aspects of the importance of location: moving to a city (wherever in the world) and falling in love with it, or someone in it, or simply reaching a point in your career where (in the small-to-mid sized Australian market) there is nowhere left to go but overseas.

We also undervalue these people as ambassadors for the vibrancy of Australian business, culture and academia.

The real question is not why do people leave, the real question is whether they return – and whether we are doing enough to attract movement in the other direction. Where are the voices we have lured to Australia to enrich our debates, and if there aren’t any, what are we doing wrong?

If Melbourne is the best city in the world for expats to live in, where are the professionals and intelligentsia we’ve lured from overseas? I suspect they’re already there, though we could do more to pull them in – starting with ditching the chip on our shoulder.

(PS The comments on this post have moved over here. My apologies.)

No comments: