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The party's winding down in Australia. purse strings are tightening. the din of a rare old time is not what it was

It's safe to assume that Irishman Allan Dixon isn't having your common-or-garden backpacker experience Down Under. Last week, the 26-year-old Dubliner landed what's being touted as one of the world's best jobs – as an outback adventurer in Australia's Northern Territory. And, after seeing off 330,000 applicants from every corner of the world, Dixon will interact with animals and shoot outback scenery for a AU$100,000 (€80,000) salary.

Sure enough, when Dixon appeared on Australian TV to celebrate his new post, his bountiful charms snagged the attention of news anchor Natasha Exelby. Playfully referring to him as a 'leprechaun', the Channel Ten newsreader fluffed her lines while reading out some very serious news.

It resulted, of course, in a video clip that went viral worldwide and hit home what we already knew: the Irish are great for a good old flirt.

relocation

It's a narrative we're surely used to by now: Irishman comes good Down Under, and charms the lasses to boot. It's certainly the sort of narrative that keeps the eyes of many Irish jobseekers trained on Australian cities.

Research proves time and time again that Irish people reckon that Australia is still very much the land of plenty, as it remains their first choice as a relocation destination. Just last week, statistics released by the Immigration Agency showed that 85pc of Irish people would 'happily' make the big move Down Under, while 74pc of those questioned said they would have two friends or family members already living there.

From June 2011-2012, over 26,000 Irish under-thirties were granted a working holiday visa, with many of them using it as a pathway to permanent residency. Meanwhile, over 10,100 applied for the covetable four-year visas (known as 457 visas) for skilled employees.

"Australia is definitely still the first choice for jobseekers, but the number of applicants has reduced this year," explains Edwina Shanahan, of Visa First (www.visafirst.ie).

"There is an increase of those looking to Canada and New Zealand. These days, you find a higher percentage of people looking for the sponsorship and migrant visa (for Australia). They're thinking more in the long-term."

And, amid the tales of exodus, the reports of sun, sea and 6ft surfie gods and goddesses, the disturbing truth has fallen through the cracks.

As of now, the Australian economy – currently the world's 12th biggest – boasts the lowest benchmark interest rate in 53 years. Yet it's an economy that's cooling down. In some parts of Australia, like Brisbane, unemployment exceeds 27pc.

And, as of this week, with the ousting of PM Julia Gillard and reinstatement of ex-PM Kevin Rudd, the country is staring into a volatile and uncertain political future. All of this is reshaping the Irish emigrant experience.

subdued

Certainly, when I visited Melbourne for the third time in as many years, I noticed a small but subtle change.

The city has become subdued and slightly muted. Australians are still keenly aware that they are living where most other people in the world want to be. Yet the laid-back charms that everyone is familiar with have given away to a niggling low hum of social anxiety.

I'd always marvelled at the Australian work-life balance; this time around, however, there was much more talk of financial pressures and work woes.

Many of my Australian friends have found themselves recently redundant, forced to retrain, or seeking help from Centrelink (the dole).

Suffice to say that the Australian welfare system is a finely tuned and well-oiled machine, not designed to facilitate folk who want to hang about for years on end milking the system.

Interview techniques and job-seeking coaching are offered as a matter of course, and many locals find their feet after a short while.

Still and all, there's a sense that the party is winding down in Australia. Purse strings are ever tightening. The raucous din of a rare old time is not nearly as lively as it was two years ago.

Add to this the recent news that Australia's Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union wants tighter rules on 457 visas (alas, mining is a big draw for Irish workers) and it all spells less-than-stellar news for Irish jobseekers.

Yet here's the rub: enchanted by all those Facebook status updates from friends on Bondi, Irish people are walking blindly into a disaster. Many assume that they'll land a job before they even pick their suitcase up from the airport carousel.

One friend – fully qualified and talented in his field – arrived in Melbourne in November. "I think I'll start looking for work after Christmas, but first I want a holiday," he said.

There was no convincing him to start looking earlier, and that Australia isn't the sunny, moneyed paradise he was led to believe. Sure enough, he burned through his savings of €2,000 (which won't last a wet week in Australia) and was surviving on money transfers from his parents at home. As of now, he is still searching for a job.

"During the Celtic Tiger years, people went to Australia looking for more of a cultural experience, and were willing to do lower-grade jobs and had lower expectations," notes Edwina.

"Now, people would prefer to get a career job related to their college course. People who seem less wealthy are travelling out there, but they're more career driven." To be fair, the Irish can be fussy while looking for work: "We were looking for a beautician for a place in Ayers Rock, and we couldn't find anyone, says Edwina.

"I think it's important to remember that you have to broaden your mind while travelling, and not living with the 10 lads you went to college with in Wexford."

Another friend has attended countless interviews for a media job, but lost out to Australian applicants because the bigwigs didn't have to worry about visa issues with them. Last year, 10,000 Irish people were sponsored for employment in Australia (the third highest country, after the UK and India).

paradise

The working holiday visa poses its own obstacle: "If an employer knows you can only work for six months (a condition of the visa), he'll think you're not a real player," says Edwina. "It helps to tell an employer that you intend to stay longer."

Outside the workplace, there is the faint stink of an 'Us' and a 'Them'.

In the US, an Irish accent is a boon, an asset. The Aussies seem jaded and unimpressed by the Irish now. They've heard too many tales about the 'fighting Irish in Bondi' (a favourite story of the Aussie media).

I had lost count of the amount of times I was labelled a heavy drinker by people I'd just met, which is ironic because the Aussies I met were some of the hardest and most consistent drinkers I've ever encountered.

The difference, of course, is that they drink slowly and steadily in the privacy of their own homes. "Why are you here ... no work for you at home?" became a typical line of enquiry, too.

Yet Edwina doesn't take truck with whisperings of anti-Irish sentiment: "Bad news travels faster than good," she says, referring to the steady stream of news stories about Irish hell-raisers in Bondi, Coogee and Perth. "I did ring up one police station in Perth to check that out, and they totally knocked it. The reason the Irish are probably no longer a novelty there is because they are integrating well into Australian life."

Little wonder they want to integrate; it is, after all, a country of immense beauty and charm. As I mentioned earlier, Australians are more than aware that their country is the one place everyone else wants to be. While the salt-of-the-earth, no-nonsense Aussie still very much exists, there is a growing strain of pampered, entitled youngsters.

"Australia is wasted on the Australians," remarked one friend based in Perth recently, and I think I know what she means.

In Ireland, we have relatively little ... but we make the absolute most of it. We don't give ourselves enough credit for this. Australia may have the weather and the resources ... but Ireland has the people.

And while the party starts to die down in Australia, here's hoping we don't lose too much of our best asset in the future.


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