Australia moves its border for Kiwis - again

There isn't much being done to dispel the image of New Zealanders as guest workers in Australia, writes migration researcher Paul Hamer

In February 2001, when Australia cut the access of newly-arriving New Zealanders to welfare payments or a pathway to citizenship unless they obtained a competitive and expensive permanent visa based on age and skills, Canberra emphasised the changes had a “limited purpose”. As such, then-Prime Minister John Howard wrote to the state governments to stress they should not start to deprive New Zealand citizens of state-level benefits and services, such as education. While the states have not yet introduced fees for schooling, they did - surely and predictably - start to exclude ‘unprotected’ post-2001 New Zealanders from a range of services, such as public housing, disability support and student travel concessions.

Canberra did not criticise this, because it had in fact led the way itself with further exclusions. Most notably, access to student loans was restricted to citizens only from 2005. Later, in 2011, unprotected New Zealanders were deemed ineligible for federal disaster relief payments in the Queensland floods; in 2012, unprotected New Zealanders were excluded from government payments to victims of terrorism; and in 2013, the National Disability Insurance Scheme excluded unprotected New Zealanders despite them contributing to the scheme through a rise in the Medicare levy. The pre-2001 rights of New Zealanders in Australia were being steadily eroded.

There have been occasional clawbacks. Affected New Zealanders now always get an ex gratia payment when there is a natural disaster, for example. In 2013, the outgoing Labor Government promised student loans for those who had arrived in Australia as children, and Malcolm Turnbull’s Government finally delivered the needed legislation at the end of 2015. In February 2016, Turnbull announced a new pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders who had consistently earned above A$53,000, thus opening the doors to those who had been stymied by the skills test.

None of these concessions, however, have done much to resurrect the status of New Zealanders in Australia as equals. In fact, they have occurred alongside further exclusions. The changes to the character provisions of the Migration Act in 2014, for example, have left potentially thousands of New Zealanders (often only Kiwis by birth) vulnerable to deportation. Then, either side of Anzac Day this year, Australia announced much longer waiting periods for citizenship for any New Zealanders obtaining a permanent visa (later confirmed not to apply to those who use the new pathway) and the end of subsidised study places for New Zealanders at Australian universities. Student loans are on offer, but the fee increases surely mean few New Zealanders will be willing to become saddled with such substantial debt.

There are those who believe New Zealanders have been unfortunately mixed up in Australian crackdowns really directed at other people. When large numbers of New Zealanders began to be placed in immigration detention and deported in 2015, John Key said Kiwis were “collateral damage when it comes to what they’re doing for other people or other countries”. A confused former Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, echoed this by insisting the Migration Act changes were “introduced to counter the terrorist threat posed by Australians who had made a commitment to a jihadist cause”. New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English followed this line when he remarked recently that New Zealanders were being “caught up” in Australia’s “strong focus on its border control and citizenship”.

This analysis simply does not stand up. In 2001, New Zealanders were targeted because of the perceived welfare costs and the proportion of New Zealand migrants born in third countries. This Australian concern about the ‘back door’ route to their country by those who would not generally gain entry any other way—notably including many Pacific Islanders—had been around since Gough Whitlam’s Government removed racial restrictions on migration from New Zealand in 1973, and has never left. The 2014 Migration Act changes were aimed at bikies and any non-citizen criminals whose sentences added up to at least a year, and the Australian Government knew full well this included many New Zealanders. The recently announced extended waiting periods on permanent visas may have overlooked the promises made when the new pathway was announced in 2016, but they were entirely in keeping with the entrenched regard for New Zealanders living in Australia as having temporary status only.

This categorisation of New Zealand migrants as mere visitors reflects a broader Australian trend away from the idea of immigration as a permanent process and toward an emphasis on temporary settlement. We are admitted entry but the effective border has shifted to the Centrelink office or the university. The head of the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo, highlighted this mindset when he referred in 2014 to Australia’s border as “a complex continuum stretching ahead of and behind the border, including the physical border”.

In his first overseas trip as Foreign Minister, Gerry Brownlee attempted to put a positive spin on the university fee-hike, characterising the lack of notice as a “one-off” and describing the problems as both needing to be put in the context of a “very long relationship” and “not things that cannot be sorted out or worked out or discussed in future”. Brownlee’s double negative will not have made New Zealanders in Australia feel positive. The context he should have borne in mind is a steady erosion of rights over the last two decades. These latest changes only serve to solidify the status of expatriate New Zealanders as guest workers, instead of genuine settlers and net contributors to Australian society.

* Paul Hamer is a migration researcher attached to Te Kawa a Māui—School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

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