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Relations between Australia and NZ have rarely been so strained

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's moves to further toughen deportation will only cause more angst to New Zealand.

It is early spring in Manuka, a leafy corner of Canberra that echoes of New Zealand. Cars glide down its main thoroughfare, which was to be named Wellington Ave after the New Zealand capital when those planning Australia’s capital in 1913 assumed New Zealand would join the Australian federation.

The invitation within the Australian constitution remains for Aotearoa to be Australia’s seventh state – history known by the Kiwis who are my lunch companions but less familiar to the unruffled public servants thronging the restaurants. Many would also be unlikely to know the suburb is named after a sinewy New Zealand shrub – another vestige of Australia’s misplaced confidence that New Zealand would elect to join.

In the 118 years since the Australian federation was formed, both countries have nevertheless become intertwined. The 1200 nautical miles of Tasman Sea that helped sink Australia’s ambitions for a seventh state have been shrivelled by aircraft, high-speed communications and the mass migration of New Zealanders. Australia is home to 13% of Kiwis.

Yet, rarely have relations between Canberra and Wellington been so strained. In the nearly four months since the cock-a-hoop Scott Morrison led Australia’s conservative parties to a triumphant return to office, it has become clear that there will be no easing of the policy that is causing much aggravation to New Zealand: the forced deportation of New Zealand-born offenders who have been in Australia for most of their lives. By contrast, New Zealand does not deport non-citizens who have resided for 10 years or more – believing a country of residence still has obligations to them.

Worse, Australia is now widening the net of those who can be deported – a move that will, again, have a disproportionate effect on the New Zealand-born and result in ever more offenders being sent back to what is effectively a foreign land. Under a planned toughening of Australia’s character test, non-citizens will risk deportation if their offence is punishable by up to two-years’ jail – even if a court imposes a more lenient sentence.

Dame Annette King, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Canberra, took the unusual step last month of appearing before an Australian parliamentary committee to personally put her nation’s strong objections to the deportation of long-term resident Kiwis. It was the feisty veteran Labor senator Kim Carr, Australia’s former minister for science and research, who eventually asked the provocative question: how do you respond to the allegation that this is a proposition to improve public safety by getting rid of New Zealanders?

King might have been tempted to mention that she has a Kiwi-educated stepson in Australia – a brain surgeon who happens to be in charge of neurosurgical training in Western Australia. Diplomatically, she said she hoped the policy wasn’t designed to especially target New Zealanders.

Which begs the question: why don’t Morrison – the architect of the deportations policy – and its enforcer, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, recognise that New Zealand makes a sound argument regarding the deportation policy?

Their refusal to address the core of New Zealand’s concerns leaves open an ugly conclusion – that Australia’s long and deep animosity towards Pacific Island migrants may be behind the policy. Of the hundreds deported to New Zealand from January 2015 to April 2018, at least 60% were Maori or Pacific Islanders.

In those 12 decades since New Zealand rejected Australia’s federation overtures – partly on the grounds of how Australia treated non-whites – some things appear to have changed little.

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.