What's life like down under? Article icon


Caoimhe Buckley, engagement specialist, University of Melbourne, explains how life works for a communications professional on the other side of the world.

The day I left London with my family to take a communications role in Melbourne, Australia, I secretly questioned if I was doing the right thing. My husband was gainfully employed, the kids were in a great primary school in a lovely neighbourhood and I was only a short flight from most of my family in Dublin. I'd like to tell you I was just extremely prescient; anticipating Brexit and all that might mean for people like me, with foreign sounding names living in London, but I wasn't. Like everyone else in my bubble, I thought it could never happen. There was zero incentive to leave.

I loved London and I had a rewarding job but I was working in the European arm of BHP Billiton, at the time Australia's largest company, away from the centre where key decisions were increasingly being made, under a new chief executive. If I moved to Melbourne, I would also have the opportunity to lead an area that was new to me; employee communications. So, thanks to a very supportive husband, we decided to take a leap into the unknown (literally, in his case, as he hadn't even visited Australia before we moved).

In many ways, Australia is very similar to the UK, including in the sophistication of its communications and the proliferation of networks to support our profession. There are best practice bodies like the Centre for Corporate and Public Affairs and the Public Relations Institute of Australia. There are at least four recruitment firms that specialise in marketing, communications and public affairs. Every international PR and advertising agency has a substantial outfit in Melbourne or Sydney, not to mention some great home-grown agencies.

The Australians I've worked with and met socially all seemed to have lived abroad at one point or another; many in London. They are worldly and most are passionate about travelling. But I was surprised by the inward nature of the media. In the major financial paper, there are only a couple of  world news' pages. There is also a syndicated page from the Financial Times. TV and radio are also very domestic focussed and in online press, world news is buried under the lifestyle section. Perhaps that inward-looking nature is justified given how healthy the economy has been over recent years. The industries that support Australia's economy, which withstood the 2008 global financial crisis, are similar to the UK but there are also large mining, farming, tourism and gaming sectors. The higher education sector is growing fast.

The country is definitely more insulated from the intense competition to be found in Europe and the US but this may have also contributed to lower productivity. China and the rest of Asia dominate international economic relations, although I would venture to say I don't feel any closer to Asia here than I did in London.

There are some particular idiosyncrasies to working here: in Melbourne, you have to have a Footy team; it's a threshold question So, who do you barrack for? Any team is fine except Collingwood for some reason, which makes people suck air through their teeth.

Everything is abbreviated and if it's not, it soon will be. G'day is in common parlance, Brissie is Brisbane, McDonald's is Maccas and avo is avocado and you eat lashings of it on sourdough. I have successfully adopted spruiked (publicise), kenoath (too rude to explain) and on ya (good on you) into my vocabulary. I've yet to find the opportunity to plausibly work fair dinkum into a sentence.

As you've guessed from the lingo, it's a relaxed yet energetic place. People don't stand on ceremony; they think nothing of wearing thongs (not their underwear thankfully but flip flops) and shorts when taking a client or supplier to the Australian Open.

I'm told it's quite common for the drinks trolley to come around at 3pm on a Friday (not at BHP Billiton I hasten to add where alcohol is forbidden on safety grounds). The weather is miles better, the land abounds in nature's gifts and people are generally given 'a fair go' so long as they work hard and tell it like it is.

Sounds appealing? Well, if Brexit has pushed you over the edge and you're thinking of joining me down under for a change of pace, a word of warning: communicators tend to work just as hard here as they do in London.

Corporate affairs and investor relations at international companies tackle the same issues; climate change, tax transparency, workplace diversity, shareholder activism, which are just as important in Canberra as they are in Brussels, Whitehall and Washington although the legislation takes a few more years to materialise.

The senior executives are no less thin skinned; the newspapers don't go easy on companies even if they are unashamedly pro-business. Just like the UK, business can’t be done without a sound knowledge of digital channels. Australian Senators are just as keen on a select committee hearing as any self-respecting member of the House of Commons.

Nor is Australia immune to the extremist tendencies sweeping the globe, despite being a country of immigrants where Indigenous Australians are definitely in the minority, Australia's One Nation party is gaining ground.

Like corporate affairs practitioners all around the world, the rules of the game have changed; dwindling numbers of journalists, 24/7 news cycle and the increasing success of populist politics where the facts don't seem to matter.

Australia has certainly welcomed me, even if my name confounds people, and I'm glad to be watching recent world events from a relatively safe distance.