There are over 50,000 New Zealanders living in places other than Australia or Britain. In the United States there are New Zealand women who emigrated there as war brides after the Second World War, and many New Zealand scientists and researchers – people like the Olympic runner Peter Snell who went to research the physiology of exercise and stayed. Actors such as Martin Henderson, directors including Lee Tamahori and Roger Donaldson, and models such as Rachel Hunter have also been drawn by the bright lights of the big American cities. Asia, Africa and the Pacific are also home to New Zealanders who perhaps came first with the Volunteer Service Abroad programme or as teachers of English, and then stayed. International organisations in New York or Geneva regularly employ New Zealanders. In many of these places there are clubs which organise social occasions and the exchange of news from home. Where the community is smaller as in Denmark or Malaysia, Kiwis often join forces with their Aussie cousins.
Whenever there is a net loss in population, concerns are raised about the economic consequences of a ‘brain drain’. In the late 1990s, young New Zealand professionals were increasingly pushed away by lower wages, an inability to repay student loans, and limited career opportunities. With one in five working New Zealanders overseas, the potential tax take was drastically reduced.
However, the diaspora can be seen in a positive light: expatriates can serve as ambassadors, helping to stimulate trade and inbound tourism. The New Zealand government has also funded networks of expatriates to help the economy from afar.
Many expatriates retain strong links with their country of origin. Restaurateurs offer green-lipped mussels and New Zealand sauvignon blancs; professional sportspeople earn their living from sport overseas but represent New Zealand at the Olympics; film-makers such as Jane Campion and Vincent Ward return to shoot films with a New Zealand setting. Alan MacDiarmid went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship and stayed because of the research opportunities. But after winning a Nobel prize for chemistry in 2000 he returned regularly to help promote the Alan MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Victoria University of Wellington.
Peter Gordon, a New Zealand-born chef and co-owner of restaurants in London and New York, has many New Zealanders working with him. He uses ingredients which he says ’may seem peculiarly Kiwi’, but in his book, A world in my kitchen, he explains; ‘A good recipe isn’t geographical in its appeal or approach.’ 1
In the longer term, quite often at retirement, many skilled New Zealanders come back. Since the early 1980s more than half a million have returned. And although losses of doctors and nurses are highlighted by individual cases, research does not support the theory of a brain drain. It is more of a ‘brain exchange’, as New Zealand gains as many highly skilled migrants as it loses.
The term ‘slacker drain’ has been applied to Australia-bound migrants, as some are unemployed. But research shows that those leaving for Australia are representative of the entire New Zealand population.
Many leave, many return
With a global labour market, many Kiwis will spend a considerable time overseas. This is part of a worldwide trend in which people are generally more mobile. Some New Zealanders intend to stay for good, while others are undecided. But return is always an option as long as they retain their nationality (or even if they gain Australian nationality). Expatriates on the electoral roll can vote in the three weeks prior to a New Zealand election.
New Zealand’s population is itinerant, and movement in and out of the country is variable. In 2001, 1.9% of the population left intending to be away for more than a year. This was higher than figures for Australia (1%), Ireland (0.6%) and Britain (0.5%). But the media hype that is generated whenever outward migration surges seems surprising considering New Zealanders’ long history of leaving and returning.