Tim Harcourt

With Australia Day with us again, the great Aussie annual introspection starts. We ask questions about who we are as a nation, how does our history stack up, where are we heading and what our values are. We even have debates about whether we should have Australia Day at all.

Of course, having a bit of a national conversation with ourselves isn’t a bad thing. It’s healthy to ask questions. And there can be some spinoffs. A bit of navel gazing by Australians lead to Dr Karl Kruszelnicki‘s mini-thesis and why belly button fluff is always blue (true blue that is, or is it green, Karl?).

But as healthy as questioning is, it is important to know to have a good amount of evidence on side to really get a handle on things. In these days of 24 hour news cycles, and instant opinion making, having a loud megaphone and the capacity to put the boot into someone or some group seems to carry more weight than a considered opinion based on research or a fair minded assessment of a complex issue affecting the nation. Whether it’s a shock jock at home or a celebrated expat touching down on an airport tarmac to launch a diatribe on the national character, some of the louder voices of public opinion drown out the voices of other Australian citizens.

But as we approach January 26th, we should clear the air by disposing a few great Aussie myths, which will fill the air waves this week. By doing that, we’ll have a better informed dialogue about the future of the nation. If New Zealanders are once were warriors, Australians are once were worriers. As a result of our mass worrying several myths are created as fact, and distort the debate. So if we can dispose the myth, then we will literally have no worries. Let’s take few myths that you always hear around this time of year.

Myth one is one we always hear that ‘Immigrants take our jobs.’ This has come to the fore recently in the form of Liberal MP Theresa Gamboro’s ‘scientific’ observation that immigrants don’t know how to queue of use deodorant. Putting the great Rexona question aside, in the labour market the evidence shows that immigrants make a positive contribution to the labour market. Immigrants make good exporters. According to Sensis research, 50 per cent of all exporters are born overseas. They bring skills, networks, language culture and a bit of entrepreneurial flair and enrich us as an economy and a society. Think Westfield, TNT, Myer, Bing Lee, Crazy Johns all started by migrants. Think of the Australian business hall of fame. Names like Lowy Abeles Parbo come to mind. Immigrants make good employers and good workers. Exporting businesses (many started by immigrants) pay 60 per cent higher wages than other companies, and provide job security and higher occupational health and safety (O H & S) standards. As employees, immigrants are often highly skilled and work ready. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that while immigrants account for less than 30% of the labour force, they have claimed more than half the jobs created since the start of 2010. Immigrants are both employable and self-employable.

Myth two is that ‘we’re experiencing a brain drain’. Apparently all our best and brightest are leaving and this is harming our economy. Well. It is true that there are 1 million Aussies overseas, according to the seminal work on this subject by the Lowy Institute, but it is more ‘brain gain’ than ‘brain drain’. Many Australians work and study abroad – especially in their younger years – get experience and like a boomerang, they come back, especially when wanting to raise a family. But it’s not a bad thing for Australians to have overseas experience, and if some stay on and become Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, editor of The Times, or hold down key positions in Shanghai, Seattle or Sao Paulo, that just opens up strong networks for the rest of us. Also with the global financial jitters affecting northern hemisphere financial markets, more expat Aussies will be coming home than we thought.

Myth three is ‘Australian workers are bludgers’. When Jeff Kennett was Premier of Victoria and attacking public holidays, annual leave and penalty rates, labour market research showed that Australia was mid-table in terms of public holidays and most countries paid annual leave loading, annual leave and leave bonuses. On international comparisons, Australians are relatively hard working; they focus more on practical productive outcomes (than clocking up hours at the office or other workplace) and have a moderate amount of public holidays. We’ll be taking Australia Day off, but Chinese New Year holidays and celebrations last 2 weeks and other countries have similar festivals. According to international brand surveys, Australians are perceived to ‘work hard and play hard’ and their easy going nature should not be confused with sloth or laziness.

Myth four is ‘We’re just China’s quarry and Japan’s beach.’ This pops up from time to time along with the comments that we are not clever, innovative or ‘high tech’ enough. Australia’s chief scientist (along with the head of Hewlett Packard) said 10 years ago that Australia needed to forget commodities (he said this just before our record terms of trade boom) and build a strong technology sector like Taiwan of the Australian dollar ‘would be 30 cents US by 2010’.The comment ignores the fact that innovation comes from many industries including Australia’s traditional areas of comparative advantage in mining and agriculture. Everywhere I go in the world, I meet small Perth companies that sell technology to the Siberian or Brazilian mining sectors, McLaren Vale winemakers selling marketing software and services to Argentina and France, and everyone knows about the innovation in Australian surf wear, surfboard and sports innovation. Check out how many Billabong boardies you next see in Bordeaux, Bali or on the surf coast of Brazil, Peru, Chile or South Africa. Innovation comes from many places, not just the computer industry.

And finally, there is a myth that ‘We are too far away to matter.’ Well that may have been so in 1788 when we were a convict colony waiting for ships to come from England. The brilliant and eminent Australian historian wrote eloquently about this in his famous treatise The Tyranny of Distance. Now in the 21st century, Australia finds itself at the right place at the right time in the Asian time zone, and supplying what China, India, ASEAN and the rest of the emerging world need. With euro-gloom and American blues economically, the rise of Asia may well see Australians talking less about ‘the Tyranny of Distance’ and more about ‘the Power of Proximity’ in years to come.

Happy Australia Day!

Tim Harcourt is the JW Nevile Fellow in Economics, Australian School of Business, UNSW and author of The Airport Economist: www.timharcourt.com