Australians and New Zealanders have traditionally shared a strong bond, dating back to the ANZAC days and beyond.
There are currently around 200,000 New Zealanders living in Australia, many of whom have been here for decades.
A large number of them are here as a result of reciprocal arrangements between the countries, which allow each other’s citizens to live, work and benefit from the respective social security and public hospital systems without the usual visa restrictions.
But legislative changes through the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (New Zealand citizens) Act (2001) (‘the Act’) and thereafter have slowly whittled away the rights of New Zealanders in Australia, and many thousand are now living in a precarious legal position with little recourse to government support or assistance.
The 2001 Act cut-off the direct path the Australian citizenship. Mr Tim Gassin is chairman of the organisation ‘Oz Kiwi’ which, as the name suggests, advocates the rights of New Zealanders living in Australia. Mr Gassin chronicles the ‘attack on Kiwis’:
“they knocked off social security access. In 2005 they removed access to higher education loans. In 2012 it was the removal of disability services.”
In recent years, New Zealanders have become increasingly frustrated about being treated as second class citizens in a country they have called their own for many years, even decades. New Zealand rights activist, David Faulkner, says “[t]here is overwhelming evidence that New Zealanders are being subject to endemic discrimination here in Australia.”
Mr Gassin says the frustration is compounded by the fact that New Zealanders:
“…are working and contributing to the economy and paying taxes and levies… but are not entitled to access any benefits should they fall on hard times.”
Gassin expresses concern “about the lock in of disadvantage across two or three generations”, as Kiwi children from poorer backgrounds are unable to access Youth Allowance or HECS. He says:
“Work done by Griffith university shows that the children of New Zealand citizens are only half as likely to go to university as their class mates.”
Sam Roberts of the National Union of Workers (NUW) agrees, stating “Kiwi’s come here and do the hard jobs that keep the country running.”
Gassin says the NUW:
“has a very large Maori and Pacific Islander membership. These are the groups that are hammered hardest by these laws. They are good workers, good union members. They have been living here for 10 plus years, but have no rights, they can’t vote, can’t do anything, their kids can’t go to university.”
Being unable to access Centrelink and other benefits can have catastrophic consequences. Mr Gassin says:
“We hear from a lot of women, mostly single mothers who can’t get any support for their children. They might have an Australian father who is not paying any child support. The children are living in dire poverty with a kiwi mother. You hear a lot of cases about domestic violence, where kiwi women fleeing domestic violence very often can’t get into refuges, because you need to be on Centrelink.”
Gassin says that to go back to New Zealand would have severe consequences on children, many of whom were born and raised in Australia and have no affiliation with their parents’ ‘homeland’.
He points out that parents of children with disabilities have been stripped of rights to any services, leaving them in an impossible situation.
New Zealanders who have been injured at work, or lost their job, or find themselves in situations beyond their control can face the prospect of homelessness:
“Two or three months of government support and someone will get back on their feet… It might save the government two or three thousand dollars but you have lost someone who could have gone back to work, but has been forced into homelessness. They don’t recover, don’t go back to paying taxes. It is a complete mess, often for their children as well.”
Gassin feels it is unfair that Kiwis who have worked in Australia but fall on hard times are unable to access their superannuation under the hardship clause, because an applicant must be on Centrelink to do so.
Will the Situation Change?
Although Oz Kiwi lobbies tirelessly, there is not much incentive for our government to change an arrangement where they receive billions in taxes while giving little in return.
The situation for Australians living in New Zealand is somewhat different. They can vote after one year and claim benefits after two years. Gassin believes that the situation is not only unfair, but is undesirable:
“We have some liberal party politicians acknowledging that they stuffed up in 2001, including one of the architects of the law. There is a growing number of people in the government admitting it is not working. But it is going to cost a lot of money to fix up now. They have built a budget on taking taxes from 200,000 people and providing very little in return.”
A Fair Go
Mr Gassin says no-one is suggesting we go back to the 1970s where New Zealanders could get off a plane and go on the dole the next day.
But New Zealanders who have worked hard and contributed to Australia, purchasing homes and paying mortgages, would like a clear path to residency and eventually citizenship; something they are prepared to earn.
Gassin expresses the feelings of many New Zealanders:
“What we have been pushing for is to go back to a reasonable system, a middle path. Neither being able to come over here and go straight on the dole, that is just asking for trouble, or the stupid thing where you live your whole life here and never have any rights.
We are saying let’s go back to square one. We have got this supposedly common market between these two countries. Why don’t we sort out something that is a reasonable, like a period of five years. That is a period most people can plan for. They can come to Australia with a reasonable amount of savings or a job.
If you can get through it, you have shown you can be self-sufficient well then you can say you might have access to a greater array of government services and apply for citizenship. Most countries have at least some sort of time based thing, that is what is missing here.”
For thousands who have spent most of their lives in Australia, returning to New Zealand is like travelling to a completely foreign country. But under the existing regime, a large number will ultimately be forced to resettle once they retire, or if they become ill – a situation which many feel is unfair.
Thousands of New Zealanders have found the Department of Immigration’s citizenship requirements to be strict and inflexible.
Many were working overseas on the 26th February 2001, when the rules said you had to be physically present in Australia to retain a direct path to citizenship. Upon returning to Australia, these people discovered they were no longer entitled to benefits or the direct path.
Actor Russell Crowe, who has contributed millions to his adopted country and arrived as a child, was not entitled to citizenship in 2006 because he was away working on the Oscar winning film ‘Gladiator’ on the magic date. Crow called the Department’s decision “arbitrary and ridiculous”.
In addition to all of this, amendments to the Migration Act made in 2014 mean that more kiwis are being deported from Australia than ever before.
The ANZACS fought alongside each other in the ditches, but the ANZAC spirit only prevails, it seems, when it suits the Australian government.
Perhaps it’s time to give New Zealanders a fair go.