Australia's just not that into us – so what should we do about it?

by The Listener / 11 May, 2017
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

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Modern dating argot has the best description of what the New Zealand-Australia relationship ought to be: friends with benefits.

At least, that’s what we always thought this side of the Tasman. Now the truth could hardly be more stark: Australia’s just not that into us. Its decision to slap full user-pays on New Zealand tertiary students is the latest in a series of moves that we can’t help but see as hostile. Summary detention and deportation of New Zealand residents who have served criminal sentences, scientifically unjustified bans on our apples, new citizenship barriers, open criticism of our foreign policy – the one affront we can be sure wasn’t deliberate is Australia’s export of myrtle rust.

It’s worth remembering the only aspect of our supposed special relationship that’s actually written down is the Closer Economic Relations trade deal. Everything else has been assumed or, as it’s turned out, over-romanticised on this side of the bromance.

More unfriendings are to come. Australia is considering school charges for Kiwi students, which would strike at the heart of transtasman mobility.

While all of this hurts and galls, it’s important to divorce our natural tendency toward mutual rivalry and ribbing from the equation. This is all about Australian domestic politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s Administration is struggling, politically and fiscally. Penalising New Zealand residents is a handy and popular way to ease both problems. Many Aussies aren’t thrilled about “bloody Kayways” muscling in on their jobs. That many are brown sadly underpins the political impetus. Few votes are put at risk by making life difficult for immigrants in Australia.

And while we mourn this betrayal of our precious Anzac bond, Britain, too, has applied a steely lack of sentiment in peeling back special treatment of erstwhile special friends. When Theresa May became Home Secretary, our Government tried to relitigate new limits on young Kiwis’ working holidays in Britain, but our reminder of our special relationship fell on profoundly deaf ears. Now May is Prime Minister, we must simply take a number in the global queue.

We are no longer special to Australia or Britain – if we ever were as special as we imagined. Yet Australians moving to New Zealand have rights far ahead of any other residents beside our favoured Pasifika. They can immediately claim a full range of social services, from free health and education to welfare benefits, and vote after a year.

In stark contrast, New Zealanders in Australia get few special rights, but are a net benefit to the Australian economy. Every New Zealander living there must either be self-supporting, or have family upkeep. We are not a burden on our neighbour but a contributor. Whatever happened to no taxation without representation?

While there’s some justification for Australia’s aggressive deportation of New Zealand-born felons, it has a callous and downright irresponsible underbelly, given many deportees were Australian-raised. Australia criminalised them, yet it’s happy to dump them back here, virtual strangers, likely to reoffend without social support.

Friends do not do this to friends. We don’t even do this to countries we’re not so keen on. But how to respond to this betrayal?

It’s tempting to retaliate in kind, stripping Australians of equivalent rights this side of the Ditch. Why turn the other cheek? Although this would be mere pocket change now, New Zealand is becoming increasingly attractive to discontented Australians.

But therein lies the answer: living well is the best revenge. We are beating Australia not just in economic performance but in less tangible lifestyle factors, not least social cohesion. And that comes in no small measure because we are an inclusive society. We have worked hard to become both bi- and multi-cultural, and we continually strive to do both better. Australia still struggles to embrace either ambition.

We don’t lock up refugees – at all, let alone indefinitely. Our politicians actively discourage racism. We do not have Bantustan-esque backwaters full of drunk and despairing indigenous people. Where Maori are falling behind, we acknowledge it as a national shame and strive for remedies.

What’s more, we have plenty of water. When climate change makes Australia less hospitable, we should stand ready to welcome its refugees with unabated generosity – and gently smiling jaws. After all, their re-education programme will require much tough love.

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


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