In recent weeks the Australian Prime Minister has announced a range of new measures to help Australians through the tough times ahead – financial support packages for businesses, a ‘coronavirus’ welfare payment, $750 cash payments for low income households, and for those who lose their jobs, the waiving of asset testing and waiting periods for welfare assistance.
The multi-billion dollar package was hailed as the greatest ‘increases to social security benefits in Australia’s history’, And many applauded it because it is a sensible measure, and one that’s needed right now as the economy takes a hit from the impact of Coronavirus, and many people face the prospect of job losses and reduced income.
But if you’re a New Zealander living in Australia, there is no need to apply. Because even in this time of global pandemic, you can’t access unemployment benefits.
Under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement which was put into place in the early 1970s, Australians and New Zealanders are allowed to live and work indefinitely in each other’s country without the need for prior approval and too much immigration hoopla.
Initially this agreement meant Kiwis were also eligible to receive the unemployment benefit in Australia from the moment they arrived.
But over time, this has changed. In 1986 new rules were introduced which meant New Zealanders were required to live in Australia for six months before receiving benefits; in 2000 this was extended to two years.
Then in 2001, the ‘Special Category Visa’ that had been created for New Zealanders in 1994 was split into two types: ‘Protected’ visas were issued for New Zealanders living in Australia on or before February 26 1994 and ‘non-protected’ visas for those arriving after.
New Zealanders aren’t eligible for ‘job seeker’ payments
Those Kiwis with ‘protected’ visas retained full access to Australian benefits while ‘non- protected’ visa holders became mostly ineligible for any welfare.
Here’s the rub. ‘Non-protected” visa holders are considered residents for tax purposes but cannot access Jobseeker payments unless they’ve lived here for 10 years. And even then, after a decade, these visa holders are entitled to a payment they can access for a maximum six month period. And they’re only allowed to access it one time.
Right now, the fact that most New Zealanders will be without access to welfare when Australians are going to be adequately protected, is seriously testing the relationship between us and our close neighbour.
Jacinda Ardern’s plea
In a press conference, the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, said she had appealed directly to Scott Morrison in a recent phone call, asking him to temporarily change the policy under these exceptional circumstances.
So far, her pleas have fallen on deaf ears. So too, have almost 200,000 signatures on a change.org petition calling on the Government to relax the rules.
Decisive action on a raft of other laws
And yet, in the meantime the federal and state governments have been able to make a raft of changes to other laws in a very short period of time, in order to attempt to stop the spread of Coronavirus – including shutting down businesses, services and venues, banning social gatherings and closing borders.
These also include changing laws to allow the Corrective Services Commissioner to make orders permitting inmates to be released on a date which is earlier than their non-parole period if the commissioner is satisfied it is “reasonably necessary” to do so.
And giving New South Wales Police increased powers to enforce ‘social distancing’ rules as well as mandatory self-isolation, with the ability to hand out fines or issue court attendance notices to anyone suspected of breaking social distancing restrictions. Punishment could mean prison time.
The justice system too is also adapting to challenging times – putting in place extraordinary measures to limit people having to attend court, and aiming to conduct as much ‘court business’ as possible by email and telephone.
Ms Ardern says she specifically sought a short term exemption for Kiwis: “Not least because it will encourage compliance during this time when we need people to be self-isolating for instances,”
Right now, it’s also unclear whether New Zealanders who may be small business owners or sole-traders will have access to any of the support payments in place under the economic stimulus package either.
New Zealand, by comparison, offers Australians access to the full social welfare safety net offered by Work and Income after they have lived in New Zealand for 30 days, so long as they can provide evidence that they intend to live and work in New Zealand moving forward.
There are currently about 650,000 Kiwis who call Australia home – less than 3 percent of our total population. They live and work here, raise their children here. They support our small businesses and contribute to the economy. They are part of our neighbourhoods and communities.
Yet, right now, in the midst of a national health crisis, we’re planning to abandon them, to figure out for themselves how to pay the bills and put food on the table if they are suddenly without a job. It is incredibly incompassionate, particularly when just last week the PM made an impassioned speech asking us all to ‘pull together’, and ‘adapt to changes.’
And the changes certainly keep coming, which is perfectly understandable under the current circumstances. What’s harder to understand is that making temporary adjustments to welfare criteria to include the Kiwis can’t be one of them.