At a Whitehall team-bonding session recently, the question was put to us: “What percentage of the division is from Australia and New Zealand?” People gave answers up to 40 per cent, but the real answer was 9 per cent. The Australians in the room laughed – sure, it’s a stereotype that they’re loud and everywhere, but they suspected the source of the error was that they did more than their fair share of work.
That perception, along with their sense of customer service (when they say “G’day” they mean it) and their willingness to work early, may be why they are so welcome in firms and government organisations in the UK. My favourite feedback was that people enjoy my “Australian freshness” (read: loud, brash, doesn’t know his place).
The question I am most often asked is: “Why are you even here?” The implication is that I am mad to leave the sun, surf and general sexiness of my homeland. But if Australia is known as “the lucky country” here, that’s not how it feels to its educated and restless youth.
“The lucky country is a myth. I’m 29 and on 80,000 quid a year as a financial controller in London. If the Australian public and politicians saw just how many of us live here and in Europe, they’d be worried,” says Mike of Camden Town.
“Working in the public sector [in Australia], you have to wait for someone to die or have a baby to get a chance for the job you want,” says Emily, aged 27, who lives in Herne Hill.
“I left in 2002. I just had the feeling I was ‘too’ everything. I was too different. Too ethnic. Too outrageous. Too ambitious. In London being different is why people value you. In Australia it is used to stifle you,” says Rita, a 32-year-old, part-Chinese woman now living in Islington.
In contrast, the buzz of a world capital like London can dazzle an ambitious or adventurous Australian. If you come from a country where public transport often runs at hourly intervals, London’s maligned Underground and budget-flight boom are like winning the Lottery. Austra lia is not an interchange; it’s the end of the line.
Life in Australia can feel like a time warp. You live your day ahead of the US and Europe, but you get your news a day after. Whereas the UK is in the heart of print media, is surrounded by digital TV and supplies broadband that actually works (it’s known as “fraudband” in Australia), Australian public culture is locked in the grip of a familiar set of faces from the generation of Germaine Greer and Clive James. One newsreader held his post for more than 40 years. It’s an old person’s paradise. Without the spur of competition and the niche outlets to develop new ideas and talent, I got sick of being sidelined by a well-off generation that treated multiculturalism as an eating strategy and didn’t know how to share.
It is not accurate to say that Australia still suffers a “cultural cringe”, but nor can it claim to have caught up culturally with more established nations. Forever holding the country back are its brilliant weather and setting. The lure of the beach is just strong enough to stifle creativity, dull ambition and act generally as a cultural anaesthetic. People like 32-year-old Jo want something else: “At the moment there is nowhere for me to go in Australia. It was too easy back home. I needed to be pushed. At the risk of sounding like someone on a journey of self-discovery, I needed to be challenged, because Australia was making me a bit complacent.”
More than 1.1 million Australians, or 5 per cent of the population, seem to agree. Most are under 35. With the freedom to reinvent themselves and the fear of being turfed out at any moment by an increasingly nasty Home Office, Australians have the right incentives to stand out and enjoy the UK in a way Brits often fail to do.
They also have practical reasons for being here. Take, for example, housing stress and the price of education. You don’t need a brain to succeed in Australia, only property. This illness has been labelled by the Economist as an “extraordinary and potentially dangerous binge”.
If I lived in Sydney I would find it harder to get a mortgage, and my rent would be the same as that on my flat in Whitechapel, though I would probably not have a wage to match. Throw in university debts (I paid A$20 or about £8 an hour to do an arts degree at a second-tier university), which I can avoid repaying by moving overseas, and you find why Qantas sells so many one-way tickets to London.
Many a Labor MP has at one point owed his seat in parliament to the strong Labor London vote. In fact, the Australia House polling booth is the biggest in the election. (The 200,000 Australian Londoners would be a voting bloc in the London mayoral election if courted carefully.)
But there is a clear difference between expatriates of my generation and those of the Clive James vintage. Our moves are rarely permanent. They will not suck the life out of Australia: we want to stretch the umbilical cord, not break it.
We will keep coming as long as you let us. As a group contributing more than it takes, we’re a good thing for the UK. What Australia gets from the deal is a question only a more conscientious government and public culture could answer.
Ryan Heath works in the UK Cabinet Office as a civil servant. He is the author of “Please Just F* Off – It’s Our Turn Now” (Pluto Press Australia)
Australia at a glance
Population: 21 million
Average life expectancy: 81
GDP per capita: $33,300
Well-being: Third most content country in the world, according to the United Nations
Children: 11.6 per cent live in poverty but
Unicef still ranks Australia seventh in child “educational well-being”
Unemployment: At a 32-year low of 5 per cent, having fallen from 11 per cent in 1992
Flying Doctor: Service started in 1928 to provide emergency health care to people in the outback
Drought crisis: Currently experiencing worst drought in 1,000 years. Every four days a farmer commits suicide. Farmers are receiving A$2m (£800,000) a day in drought relief. Kangaroos are invading cities in search of food and water
Climate change: Experts predict up to 20 per cent more droughts by 2030, more frequent bush fires, tropical cyclones, and catastrophic damage to the Great Barrier Reef
Non-native plants: Of the nearly 3,000 species that flourish in Australia, 70 per cent are a threat to natural ecosystems
Opals: Australia produces 95 per cent of the world’s opals
Water: Annual inflow to the Murray-Darling Basin is likely to fall 10-25 per cent by 2050. Roughly 85 per cent of all irrigation in Australia takes place in this basin, which is the size of France and Spain combined
Kangaroos: At least 69 species
Convicts: About 160,000 were shipped over between 1788 and 1868. Free immigrants began arriving around 1790
Racism: “White Australia” policy, intended to restrict non-white immigration, began in 1901 and ended in 1973
Racial groups: 89 per cent Caucasian, 5 per cent Asian, 2 per cent Aboriginal, 4 per cent other
Aborigines: Life expectancy is 17 years lower than the national average
Rugby: Only country to win World Cup twice, in 1991 and 1999 (left)
Research by Marika Mathieu