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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 78

Senator TIERNEY (5:43 PM) —I also rise to speak on the report entitled They still call Australia home: inquiry into Australian expatriates. Although I was not a member of the committee, I did lead a parliamentary delegation to the United Nations last year. Through the work of the office of Australian consul general, Ken Allen, and a division of that office called Advance, led by its CEO, Elena Douglas, I came across this issue and had the chance to meet with quite a lot of former Australian citizens and Australians who are working in the United States. It is a very large group of Australians that are overseas. In terms of government policy, I think we perhaps need to grapple with better ways of interacting with this group that has left Australia, sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily. The size of the group is about a million people—we have a million Australians overseas. That is about Adelaide in size, but they are living and working across the world. About 200,000 of them are in the United States. These people are often referred to as part of the brain drain, but they are a group that may come back. They are a group for which we should perhaps set up mechanisms to assist them in coming back. A lot of them have gone overseas following opportunities and sometimes they lose the links and cannot get back, even if they want to. They have not got the networks to do that.

They are developing their skills tremendously and if they decided to come back they would add greatly to the Australian economy. So we must really address this matter. Obviously, we are not going to force people to come back, but in the context of the current debate on skills—which is No. 1 on the agenda at the moment—if we could encourage the one million people to return quickly it would fix our skills shortage problem overnight. They will not do that, but we should set up the mechanisms to assist those who may want to. It would really enhance the skills base of our country. We have people with enormous skills who after developing those skills further could come back and with their overseas experience really enrich the skill base of Australian society.

I was therefore delighted to work with the consul general in his work with Advance. Advance is an organisation which focuses mainly on professionals overseas and tries to work them into networks and associations and build links back to Australia. The first of these I came across was the Advance research network, which was in New England. I went with the consul general to Boston and we had dinner at Harvard. I had the opportunity during the day at MIT to meet with a very large group of world-class Australian researchers who are leading research institutes in areas like robotics. I met a robot which thought like a two-year-old and could act like a 12-year-old. It is the most advanced robot in the world and it was developed by an Australian at MIT who is leading this field.

One of the most delightful aspects of the afternoon was meeting with Australian research students studying at MIT. I spent an hour or two with them and they talked excitedly about the research that they were doing. It is great that they are at one of the world’s leading universities like MIT, but I would hope that in five to 10 years time they might take that expertise, return to Australia and enrich us with what they have learnt and their experiences. Another group that I met with was a business community in New York. They were expat Australians who came along to listen to two Australian delegates speak on the topic, ‘What are democracy and politics going to be like in Australia after the Senate changes on 1 July?’ So it was a bit of crystal-ball gazing.

Senator Moore —What did you say?

Senator TIERNEY —You would have to read my speech, which you can find on my web site. It was an engaging discussion, with Australian politicians and diplomats engaging with Australian businessmen in New York. They are the sorts of links that we hope will help return those people to Australia at some point in the future. At another function in New York, again organised by the consul general, Ken Allen, we met with Professor Harry Messel. Professor Messel, of course, is an icon of Australian science. Through his science foundation he has spawned large numbers of brilliant scientists, many of them in the United States. Quite a number attended this dinner—all there in response to the expertise and skills of Australian science which are assisting American science and the American economy. Again, by building these links, we hope that these people come back. It is not just professionals or academics; it is a wide-ranging group of people. There are 200,000 in the United States. Through the work of Advance, links are being built so that these people may be given the opportunity to link back to Australia and possibly return in the future.

This has been a very timely report in terms of what is now occurring in the skills debate in Australia and the way in which we should link back. The recommendation to set up a web site is excellent because obviously a lot of these people are very IT savvy. If we had such a web site then we could help facilitate those links back to Australia. A policy unit in Foreign Affairs is an excellent idea, just so that we focus on this diaspora of Australians—the one million who are overseas. Certainly, I have not looked at the details of the amendments to the electoral and citizenship acts—Senator Bolkus was a little bit cryptic in his comments—but I am sure those reforms will be very worth while as well. I too commend this report to the Senate. It is an interesting area of policy development and something we should focus on. We should really try to develop better links to those Australians who are no longer in our country but may return and enrich us all with the skills and knowledge that they have gained overseas.