Politics

English keen to address Anzac ‘unravelling’ for expats

Prime Minister Bill English has expressed disappointment over yet another policy change by Australia which could hurt Kiwi expats, saying the close relationship between the two countries seems to be unravelling.

English is dispatching Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee across the ditch for his first official trip, in an attempt to get to the bottom of current uncertainty about the status of New Zealanders in Australia.

Just last week, English was forced to seek an assurance from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that immigration policy changes would not affect a special “pathway to citizenship” for Special Category Visa (SCV) holders announced only last year.

Now, tertiary education sector reforms mean some Kiwis will lose access to subsidised university fees.

A Government paper outlining the changes said they would resolve an “anomalous situation” where many Australian permanent residents and New Zealand citizens received fee subsidies but were not eligible for student loans, “presenting a significant barrier to higher education for many students”.

The changes mean all Kiwi students will be able to receive a loan, but could lead to significant increases for courses.

As an example, expat lobby group Oz Kiwi said the annual cost of an arts degree at the University of Melbourne would jump from $6349 to $24,448, with a medicine degree rising from $10,596 to $59,968.

However, the changes will not affect student loan changes announced in 2015, allowing SCV holders from New Zealand to access subsidised fees and the loan scheme - provided they arrived in Australia as a child and have lived there for at least 10 years.

“In 2016, approximately 1800 such students accessed these benefits,” the Australian government said.

“In the past, it’s been a common understanding of how we were treating each other’s citizens. Clearly that understanding is changing in Australia."

Brownlee said there were about 8000 Kiwis studying in Australia, around 6000 of whom could be affected by the policy change.

Oz Kiwi chairman Tim Gassin said he was “gobsmacked” by the latest changes to affect expats.

“People have wondered what could be next, and people had always thought, at least education was somewhat sacrosanct and wouldn’t be touched, but here we are.”

The “inevitable consequence” was that Kiwis would return to New Zealand to study, instead of incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

English told media Turnbull had not informed him of the impending reforms last week, and Brownlee would be tasked with getting to the bottom of the recent change in tone.

“The Prime Minister of Australia has always acted with goodwill towards New Zealand, and that’s why the next step is to have a discussion about where all the policy’s going.”

Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee's first official trip will be to Australia, to ask questions about recent policy changes hitting expat Kiwis. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The traditionally close relationship between the two countries had started to "unravel" after visa changes in 2001, and had been replaced by significant uncertainty for Kiwi expats.

“In the past, it’s been a common understanding of how we were treating each other’s citizens. Clearly that understanding is changing in Australia, and you can get to have a little discussion about each small step, but we would like to have a discussion about the bigger picture and where we’re headed.”

English said budget deficits were putting pressure on Australia’s government to cut social services, while it had also taken “a pretty robust view” about border control.

However, he ruled out “some mutual arms war” with reciprocal changes for Australians living here, saying that would not be productive.

“We need to avoid the temptation for short-term satisfaction of punishing someone, punishing Australians in New Zealand in order to have a sensible discussion about the long-term situation for Kiwis in Australia.”

Labour leader Andrew Little, a staunch advocate of expats’ rights in the past, said the Government should be taking a harder line with Australia on the issue.

“The Government should call them out on it and say this isn’t acceptable, this is not how we run trans-Tasman relations.”

However, he was as mystified as English as to the reasons for the erosion of the special relationship.

“I don’t know whether it’s internal in Australia or it’s just a breakdown on both sides of the Tasman, I just don’t know but we seem to be getting the stiff end of the deal.”

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