By Neil McMahon
American James Morrison first lived in Melbourne for a year more than two decades ago, on a work transfer. Fast forward nearly 10 years, living back in New Jersey, he found himself enduring a daily drive past the ruins of lower Manhattan after the September 11 attacks — and he and his wife Nancy decided the time was right to make a permanent new start in Australia.
"I was travelling by that fire every day for almost a year and decided I just didn't want to live there any more," says Mr Morrison.
"I was at a conference and ran into the guy who'd first brought me to Australia in the 1990s and he asked me when I was coming back. I said, 'I could be there next Thursday'."
It wasn't quite that quick — the Morrisons and their then 4-year-old son Dylan made the move a year and a day after the 9/11 attacks — putting them at the vanguard of a surprising immigration trend. There was a significant leap in the number of American residents in Australia in the decade after 2001, with Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing there were about 60,000 American-born people here that year and 90,000 a decade later, a 50 per cent increase.
American academic Lyman Stone noticed the number while researching the broader American diaspora and drilled down to deliver a standout finding: "I found Australia was the only country that had more Americans than the US had Australians.
"For every other country in the world, the US has more of their people than they have Americans – Australia was the one exception. That was just begging for an answer. When there's only one exception it really merits digging into."
Mr Stone says Australia is now home to the sixth largest American population in the world. The numbers are still tiny relative to the rest of our foreign-born population, but a 50 per cent increase over a decade suggests something unusual is at work.
It is assumed the biggest factor is economic.
"Australia has enjoyed relatively rapid economic growth over the last five to 15 years," he says, noting that it also offered a mix of the foreign and the familiar that made a move attractive.
"My inclination is that Australia is about as exotic as it gets while still getting to speak English and live an approximately American-feeling lifestyle. It feels simultaneously close to home and quite far from home — on the edge of the world but part of the edge of the world you can actually get to."
Dr Bates Gill, an American who heads the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, agrees economic factors are at play.
"With the Oz dollar where it was, [that] was a huge incentive because the salaries looked enormous in US dollar terms. My gut instinct would be that with the GFC and the really serious downturn in the US economy, but with the continued growth in the Australian economy and the spectacular growth in the Australian dollar, that must have been an enormous factor. The prospects in the US didn't look that good, or in Europe for that matter."
Dr Gill noted Australia's position in the Asia-Pacific region as another factor.
"It's transforming into a more Asian place, a Pacific Rim capital. If you're attracted by the overall dynamism of the region but don't speak Chinese or Korean, or you're not sure how you'd fit in in Japan or Singapore, Australia is the place to be. And it doesn't disappoint. There's little to complain about as an outsider coming here."
For the Morrisons, who live by the beach in Mentone, there have been no regrets. Mrs Morrison now has her two sons from her first marriage here – Greg, 26, came after the death of his father eight years ago and is now a citizen. His brother Zach, 29, is waiting on the outcome of a complicated permanent residence application to confirm he can stay for good.
When she first moved here, Mrs Morrison's mother said, "You could not move further away in the world than when you're going". And she admits the vast distance has been difficult at times. But she adds: "I fell in love with Melbourne 10 minutes after we got here".
Thirteen years on, they are enthusiastic promoters of a continuing American invasion. "I tell them all, 'Come on down here'," she says.
This article was originally published in The Age