Right now, there are still tens of thousands of Australians trying to get home from other countries. These are people based overseas who were told to shelter in place if they felt safe all the way back in March 2020, who have since decided that they would like to come home and yet are still waiting in a never-ending queue to return to Australia.
It’s shocking that they’re having to wait; though, at least to many of us, the idea that they’re trying to get home at least makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to come back to Australia right now? This country has handled the coronavirus pandemic more successfully than almost any other on the planet – at least, if you count success in terms of pure case numbers.
So yes, obviously if you lived in the USA or in the UK, in mainland Europe or in the sub-continent, you would be desperate to return home right now. That’s not news.
What is news, however, and what is far more interesting to me, is that for all the Australians trying to get home right now, there are many, many more who aren’t. Plenty of people have assessed the situation, seen the success Australia has had in controlling case numbers and keeping life relatively normal and still thought: nup. Not for me.
Last week, UK-based Australian journalist Kate Guest wrote a fascinating story in the Guardian about just that, about Australian expats who have elected not to return home during the pandemic, who have decided to stick it out in their new homes in France, in England, in Uganda, in Thailand. They’ve stayed for careers, they’ve stayed for family, and they’ve stayed because they just don’t like a lot of the things that current-day Australia represents, even when it’s largely virus-free.
And I have to say that so much of what was said by those expats rings true to me. I say this, too, as someone who did decide to come home to Australia as soon as the pandemic began, leaving my base in continental Europe, and as someone who – despite fancying myself as some sort of high-flying citizen of the world – does plan to call Australia home for the long-term future.
There’s a lot that I love about this place, and that suits me perfectly. But… Australia is not perfect. And that’s news. It’s also something that’s so much easier to see when you spend some time living in another country.
First problem: the anger that a simple statement like the one above will inevitably provoke. Australians are a brittle bunch, hypersensitive to any criticism, quick to shout down any dissent, quick to tell those who complain that if they don’t like it, they should leave.
We pride ourselves on our freedom of speech here, on the fact you can say anything you want – that is, unless you say the wrong thing, particularly if you’re black or Muslim, and then you will be mercilessly chased down and forced into hiding.
Still, that’s probably only a small part of what is keeping many expats from returning – though Australia’s shift to the political right is mentioned in Guest’s story. There’s talk of climate change in there, and our embarrassing lack of political will to do anything about it, plus our treatment of refugees that much of the rest of the world thinks is appalling.
Those things are important to me. But what’s also important is lifestyle, which, again, Australians tend to think we have the best of with our sun and surf and laidback attitude – but that’s all a matter of perspective.
If you want to live a socially connected life, a life of face-to-face contact with family and friends and even strangers, in a socially connected city with a dynamic culture and a strong sense of history and identity, then I’m sorry, but Australia is probably not for you.
Here we value space over social life, the desire for our personal quarter-acre trumping any chance of having a café and a bar and a few shops on every city block, the sort of places where people can congregate and socialise multiple times daily. Australians cities are designed to sprawl, so we can all have our castles, so we can all dig holes.
Australia isn’t particularly culturally rich. It’s just not. It’s lovely and it’s safe and it’s stable, and it’s the ideal place to have a family and live out your later years. But consider life in Spain, in Italy, in Japan, in India, in Vietnam, in Brazil, and there’s just no comparison.
Culture oozes from the pores of those countries, rites and traditions, festivals and carnivals, music, art, theatre, food that you’re surrounded by at every moment. Australia can’t compete with that.
There’s also the psyche of Australians. We fancy ourselves as devil-may-care larrikins but really we’re slavish rule-followers, meekly accepting draconian laws, grudgingly paying whopping fines for the smallest infractions because we love our safe, orderly society, we like to know what’s going to happen today, we like to be sure everyone will stick to the rules.
There’s a blokey, boofhead culture in Australia that I don’t always love, and that I can see would discourage many expats from coming back. Check out the ads on commercial TV here: Australians are far more comfortable with the beer-drinking everyman than they are with any other characteristic trope.
And yet – here I am. I have the astonishing and unearned privilege of being able to choose where in the world I would like to live, and I’ve chosen Australia.
However, plenty of people have not, even in the worst global crisis to affect many of us in our lifetimes. Still, they stay away. And that, to me, is news.