Australia has good reasons for trying to be less attractive to Kiwis

by Bernard Lagan / 13 May, 2017
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Our relationship with Australia no longer feels as friendly. Photo / Getty Images

Australia has already withdrawn the mutual benefits once accorded to Kiwis.

When he hastily visited Sydney, New Zealand’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gerry Brownlee – a man who is hard to miss at home – was unnoticed by most Australians.

For those interested in foreign relations, all eyes were instead upon a 75-year-old US aircraft carrier moored on New York’s Hudson River where Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was preparing to dine with US President Donald Trump.

That’s not to say Brownlee’s visit was an irrelevance: he had a friendly hour or more with his Australian counterpart, the brisk Julie Bishop, and a sympathetic, if circumspect, hearing on New Zealand’s latest gripe with its transtasman neighbour. This time it was Australia’s decision to exclude New Zealand students at Australian universities from the generous fee subsidies local students enjoy.

The decision had provoked an irritated outburst from Bill English in early May. It was a slight so cutting, in English’s view, that it put in doubt the 44-year-old transtasman travel arrangement’s foundation of mutual benefits for each other’s citizens when they swapped countries. “There is now significant uncertainty about that traditional arrangement,” English said.

The Labour Party was no less shrill. Deputy leader Jacinda Ardern wailed on television: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair.”

Had they noticed – and we can be fairly sure they didn’t – most Australians would have treated the New Zealand Prime Minister and the deputy leader of the Opposition with studied indifference; both seem to have joined that large group of Kiwis who now view Australia as part of the New Zealand landscape, akin to an extension of Aotearoa.

It’s partly understandable, since so many New Zealanders have close relatives living in Australia. About 700,000 Kiwis – more than 15% of New Zealand’s population – call Australia home. But Australia has only about 62,000 of its citizens living in New Zealand, about 0.25% of its population.

When English and Ardern complain, they ignore the importance of those numbers; for the past quarter century – until very recently – the flows have been overwhelmingly one way.

And even though Kiwis have a healthy rate of employment in Australia, the demographics of arriving New Zealanders – many with low skills, and dependent children – means their welfare cost to Australia has, historically, mattered.

Australia clamped down in 2001 and turned arriving New Zealanders into guest workers, making them ineligible for much Australian welfare. But that still didn’t stop the Kiwi tide: in 2012, a record 53,000 New Zealanders came west, lured by the fat pay packets being earnt in Australia’s mines. It became arguable that Australia had lost control of its immigration policy, because it could do nothing about the extraordinary numbers of Kiwis arriving under the open-door pathway provided by the travel agreement.

The flows have since reversed as a contracting Australian economy and more buoyant times in New Zealand lured many Kiwis home. But there’s no appetite among Australian politicians for a repeat of the 50,000-plus New Zealanders who flooded into Australia in 2012. They’re not about to make it more attractive for more to come or to encourage those already in Australia who lack the means to support themselves to stay.

Driven by its own budgetary problems and the pressures imposed by skilled migration from other nations, notably India, Australia has already withdrawn the mutual benefits once accorded to Kiwis.

One New Zealander who recognises the changed reality across the Tasman is Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett. If you don’t want to be in New Zealand and instead be in Australia, then become an Australian citizen in order to access all of Australia’s welfare benefits, she said.

Her underlying message was clear: if you’re not ready to be a real Australian, think about staying home.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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