Freelance writer – creative – media-maker
Look beyond the jibes about New Zealand’s ‘west island’ and Australia’s ‘seventh state’ and you’ll find that the jovial face of the ANZAC bond has a dark side. It has allowed legislative changes effected under the Howard government, drastically restricting the rights of many New Zealanders living in Australia, to fly under the radar for over a decade. Most Australians and New Zealanders alike simply assume that since New Zealand migrants have the right to live and work in Australia indefinitely, it is only ‘Kiwi pride’ which stops New Zealanders checking off a list of simple formalities and becoming fully-fledged Australian citizens. Few are aware that those who arrived after 26 February 2001 are not eligible for citizenship and a whole swathe of services the rest of us take for granted, no matter how long they have been living here.
As non-citizens, Kiwis who arrived after 2001 are barred from voting. Unlike all others with the right to reside in Australia permanently, however, they do not have a clear way to become citizens and gain the ability to vote. Though no longer recognised by the federal government as ‘permanent residents’, they are nonetheless classified as ‘residents’ for taxation purposes, despite being barred from many of the social and welfare services to which their taxes contribute. These include access to public housing, disability services, social welfare, student travel concessions, and public sector employment.
On the flip side, Australians who migrate to New Zealand, under the same bilateral free movement agreement, are automatically granted the full rights accorded to all permanent residents upon arrival. After one year they are eligible to vote, after two years they become eligible for all forms of welfare assistance and after five years, they can apply for citizenship.
The strength of the trans-Tasman bond is such that many New Zealanders and Australians fall in love, marry, have kids, work and travel freely between the two countries under the assumption that the two nations have reciprocal rights, as was once the case. Yet the restrictions which have come into effect since 2001 have been little publicised and it is generally left to New Zealanders and their Australian partners and children to discover the reality when things go wrong. Even for those who ‘do their homework’, the situation has not been helped by confusing information on the government’s own websites and frequent misinformation unintentionally spread by staff who are equally clueless about the ramifications of the 2001 laws.
The human impact of these restrictions has received little coverage. An increasing number of horror stories, however, are making waves within the kiwi ex-pat community.
Take the story of Karen S. Embarking on her first serious romance following the death of her first husband, Karen decided to move to Australia in 2003 with her children to be with an Australian. At first, things went well, and the pair married. Then things started to unravel. Unknown to Karen at the time, her husband was abusing her children. When this was discovered, the children were put into foster care and Karen separated from him.
The demands placed on her in attempt to get her children back, including court hearings, access visits and visits from welfare officials meant that, during this time, she was unable to continue work. As a New Zealander who arrived after February 2001, she was ineligible for financial assistance in Australia and was told by government departments that she would be better off returning to New Zealand. She could not, she told them, as that would mean leaving her children behind. “I said to them ‘Are you really trying to tell me to abandon my kids here and leave the country? Are you kidding me?’ There’s no way.”
Instead, Karen cleaned friends’ houses for extra money, drove taxis, sold non-essentials and valuables, and turned off power at home to avoid further debt and pay her rent. Fortunately, her family was ultimately reunited and the worst, so it seemed, was over. However, some years later, Karen’s eldest daughter would find herself in a violent relationship and confronted with many of the same problems her mother had faced.
“It’s just tiring, you know,” says Karen. “I mean, I do work. I work and I pay taxes and yet we’re left with nothing else but to just bear it [when things go wrong]. There’s nothing we can do. I just want us to be treated equally, as we do treat Australians in New Zealand. It needs to be reciprocal. That’s it.”
Unfortunately, the story of Karen and her family is far from uncommon. Single mothers and women experiencing abuse have been among those hit hard by the legislative changes. Many have been turned away from women’s shelters requiring residents to be in receipt of particular welfare payments for which they are ineligible, no matter how long they have been in Australia. Worse still, these women sometimes find themselves unable to return to New Zealand for financial assistance as they cannot take their children out of the country without the father’s consent. This leaves them with the unappealing options of staying with their abusive partner, staying in Australia in extreme poverty and possibly homeless, or returning to New Zealand, leaving their children with their ex-partner or in state care.
Others are affected in a seemingly infinite variety of ways. Children who have spent most of their lives in Australia are finding themselves unable to go to university as they are ineligible for HECS-HELP and Youth Allowance. Kiwi children are now only half as likely to go onto tertiary education as their Australian peers. Meanwhile, kiwi ex-pats who find themselves out of work are not only denied financial assistance, but are prevented from withdrawing money from their own superannuation funds and using some job-seeking services, as these options are only made available to those receiving Centrelink payments.
The disabled are a group that will be hit increasingly in the coming years. In the last few years, some states have begun to deny New Zealanders access to disability services. The NDIS will extend this exclusion across the country. To add insult to injury, kiwis will be forced to pay the NDIS levy. Remarkably, even children born in Australia to kiwi parents will not be covered by the scheme. This is because they are no longer granted citizenship at birth, but only after having lived in Australia continuously until the age of ten. If Kiwi parents, confronted with the lack of available support, take their child back to New Zealand to get appropriate care, that child will fail the residency test in Australia. He or she would therefore never gain Australian citizenship and subsequently never gain eligibility for the NDIS. Even if a disabled child is kept in Australia, it will still be disadvantaged as its parents will remain ineligible for carer payments due to their residency status.
The pleas of New Zealanders who have suffered as a result of these restrictions so far appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The Australian and New Zealand governments have largely bypassed the issue in public, preferring warm and fuzzy references to the ‘ANZAC bond’ and an emphasis on the two nations’ strong economic ties. Ultimately though, the plight of the 300,000-strong floating population of affected New Zealanders will need to be addressed. Awareness campaigns are just beginning to make their presence felt through social media, petitions, face-to-face meet-ups and mass targeting of politicians on both sides of the Tasman. Where this activity will all lead in the coming years is anybody’s guess.
Whilst we can joke all we want about sheep and the number six, the lives of thousands of New Zealanders deserve to be taken seriously. Chances are you have a family member, friend or partner who is affected by the legislative changes made in 2001 and therefore it affects you too. After two hundred years of shared history and culture, we should be fighting to keep the ‘fair go’ alive for Kiwis who have made Australia their home.
Image credit: SMH