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Where’s the choice, bro: Kiwis in Australia get a raw deal

There are strong cultural and historical links between Australia and New Zealand - so why are Kiwis not treated equally in Australia? AAP/Paul Miller

Back in 1901, it was said there were 1200 reasons for New Zealand not to join the Commonwealth of Australia, as that’s how many miles of ocean separate the two countries. And there’s no likelihood that New Zealand will join the federation in the foreseeable future.

There are now more than 600,000 reasons why the two should be striving at least to develop closer relations, however. That’s the estimated number of New Zealand citizens in Australia currently.

But exactly one century after federation - and even with the travel-time between the two drastically reduced - Australia and New Zealand took a great leap backwards in their relationship. In 2001, the Howard and Clark governments failed to agree on harmonising immigration policies and balancing up the fiscal costs of social security for cross-Tasman migrants. The consequences of this joint political failure are now falling on the shoulders of those New Zealanders who have migrated to work in Australia since that year.

New Zealand citizens arriving in Australia are normally granted a temporary Special Category Visa (SCV) that allows them to stay and study or work indefinitely. Yet it is not a permanent visa. New Zealanders are therefore subject to the same conditions as other foreigners if they wish to apply for permanent residence and Australian citizenship.

New Zealand citizens on the SCV can work and pay taxes in Australia. However, they cannot vote in Australian government elections, access student loans, join the Australian Defence Force, or obtain ongoing work for the Australian government. Above all, these working New Zealanders who arrived since 2001 are not eligible for most social security entitlements, including income support.

The lack of access to student loans creates a catch-22 for the young, as it’s harder to qualify for permanent residence if they lack tertiary-level qualifications. And New Zealanders whose livelihoods have been damaged by the floods in Queensland, for example - or who give birth to a disabled child while in Australia - may find that neither they nor their children are entitled to the same social security support that Australians expect or that they could have received in New Zealand.

Some have felt forced to test the issues in court. Others who have lost jobs argue that refugees and asylum seekers get a better deal in Australia than New Zealand workers do.

Now, the same Australian government fact-sheet that provides information about the SCV also points out that “New Zealand citizens have a high labour-force participation rate (78.2% at July 2012) compared with those born in Australia (68%)”. The unemployment rate of New Zealanders in Australia is slightly lower.

This suggests that Australia is the net economic beneficiary of its intake of New Zealand citizens. Australia is gaining skilled and employable people who contribute to the economy and pay taxes, and yet who pose relatively little fiscal risk to the social security budget. New Zealanders contribute more than they take, and they adapt well to the cultural and economic environment of Australia.

To be fair, Kiwi immigrants are benefiting too from participation in Australia’s stronger, higher-income economy. But, on the ancient principle of “no taxation without representation”, it is unfair that - as taxpayers in Australia - they have no right to vote on the government they pay for, and no political clout to influence Australian social policy.

Both countries have a strong history of social rights. These rights are often justified on the grounds of a “social contract” by which workers accepted higher taxation on the promise that the state would protect them in times of genuine need. Kiwis taxpayers in Australia, however, suffer deliberate social exclusion.

In reply, it could be argued that Kiwi families who fall on hard times can always fly home to get their social security rights over there “where they belong”. And there has been a take-it-or-leave-it attitude from some politicians.

One proposal is to make permanent residence more open for those New Zealanders who have already settled in Australia, and to impose a tougher policy on the numbers of new Kiwi immigrants. For the time being anyway, the economy seems to be taking care of that, stemming the tide of New Zealand citizens moving to Australia.

A joint report of the Productivity Commissions of Australia and New Zealand in 2012 made numerous recommendations for strengthening trans-Tasman economic relations. This included recommending that the Australian government address the issues facing SCV holders living long-term in Australia, such as welfare, voting rights, and pathways to permanent residency.

The issue could be up for discussion between Tony Abbott and his New Zealand counterpart John Key when they meet this week. But nothing concrete is likely to emerge from that.

While most Kiwis are doing well, we hear anecdotal evidence about social problems associated with policies that discriminate against them. These include homelessness and youth unemployment.

Although most New Zealanders are probably happy and productive in Australia, they are regarded as “guest workers”. This discrimination detracts from Australia’s reputation for human rights. The New Zealand diaspora makes Australia a richer country economically, but Australia is failing to make it a fair deal.

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