On the wrong side of the ditch

People have started saying their goodbyes, and everything is moving so fast that we couldn’t even get down to the pub one last time. One is a musician and creative who was using a small manufacturing and assembly job to meet rent. The other was an architect. They’re going back to Auckland, selling big-ticket items, scouting for lease transfers, finding caring homes for cats. It’s a bad time to be a New Zealand special category visa holder in Australia.

Of course, it’s a bad time to be a person in a creative, service or precarious sector overall, anywhere – and even with an extraordinary one-time rise in the Australian unemployment, people in need of benefits were still made to queue and beg cheek-to-jowl in a pandemic. But the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances from Aotearoa aren’t entitled to it. I’m the same, and if I do end up without a job I’ll be using a chunk of my savings to cut my losses too. There are over 600,000 New Zealand citizens ordinarily resident in Australia. How many could come back all at once?

The material realities of trans-Tasman migration – an in particular, the lack of social safety mechanisms in a crisis – have suddenly become deeply pressing. The population of New Zealanders moving to Australia for work and for lifestyle is hetereogenous, and so are the outcomes.  Successful middle-class couples in Brunswick don’t always recognise the hardship of desititute young first-generation migrants in Sydney’s outer west who find themselves unable to access benefits or training. In the past, it might have triggered a philosophical ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. But there is precious little grace in an international pandemic.

Suddenly, it feels like New Zealanders are animated, visible. As I write this, 137,000 people have signed a petition asking the Australian government to instate full Centrelink support for those of us living in Australia for the duration of the outbreak. Kiwi Facebook groups are flush with offers of incredible soldarity and manaakitanga, like the woman offering up her bush block outside Grafton, NSW, for those who needed to pull up in caravans or tents.

Jacinda Ardern noted she asked Scott Morrison for temporary coverage for New Zealanders in a phone conversation. If you’ve followed the diplomatic dance this long, you’ll know such appeals from New Zealand leaders have generally been accompanied with vows to have ‘direct’ and ‘robust’ discussions about education and deportation rights, but they haven’t gotten to the nub of the argument. New Zealanders who live in Australia for years, work, pay their taxes, should receive support when they need it.


It wasn’t always like this. The two countries chose their separate paths from the start of the 20th century, a time when New Zealand still existed as a vestigial phantom limb in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, which calls it a ‘state’. In practice, movement between the borders was fluid and informal. My father, doing a spell in the Angliss Meatworks shortly before they closed in the mid-1970s, arrived in Melbourne with nothing but his ticket and a rucksack. Passports weren’t required until 1981.

The perceived good life of the Lucky Country – an economy with high wages and generous working and welfare conditions – caused growing tensions about a prospective mass influx of Kiwis, especially after the neoliberal reforms of the nineteen-eighties eroded conditions in New Zealand. There was and remains a ‘brain drain’ narrative among the New Zealand political class, founded on the suggestion that highly-skilled or highly-experienced workers were fleeing home for greener pastures. Robert Muldoon, New Zealand’s last avowedly populist and nationalist leader, once tersely accused the departed of ‘raising the IQ of both countries’. The brain drain hypothesis has since been discredited, as demographers found in the 2000s that the common labour market has drawn a broad mix.

For Australia’s part, the arrivals started to become both tabloid and political targets. In his book Not Quite Australian: How Temporary Migration Is Changing The Nation, Peter Mares writes about the myth of ‘Bondi bludgers’ and fly-in welfare queens. In 1986, a six-month stand down to access social security was introduced. In 2000, that was extended to two years. Simultaneously, Mares writes:

There was a strong current of concern that New Zealanders were displacing locals in the labour market. ‘How are we supposed to find work when our government encourages outsiders to take it from us?’ complained [one] union in a press release.

So the arrivals found themselves in the classic Schrōdinger’s Migrant paradox – at once gainfully employed with jobs that could have gone to real Aussies, and bone-idle on comfortable government pensions.

In 2001, these manufactured pressures came to a head in multiple political projects. John Howard’s fiscally conservative taste for restricting the scope of who could receive what dovetailed with a period of ascendancy for One Nation, who fostered the nation that migrants of Asian and Pacific descent were using New Zealand as a ‘back door’ to Australia. Meanwhile, Helen Clark’s Labour government had no appetite to look after departed New Zealanders after Australia withdrew its social safety net, and plenty of reason not to make a trans-Tasman move more tempting to workers, while the then conservative opposition continued to raise the spectre of uniquely skilled citizens (read: lawyers and doctors who couldn’t assemble an IKEA cabinet between themselves) fleeing the country en masse.

These changes have left a long tail of ruinous social consequences. Since 26 February 2001, New Zealanders who arrived in Australia are no longer entitled to unemployment benefits, youth allowances, solo parenting benefits or, for the most part, disability support pensions. Countless New Zealanders have thrived – as hospitality professionals, tradespeople, creatives, healthcare workers. Others, for reasons generally out of their control, have not. Casual and increasingly gigified workers have leapt from job to job and rental to rental in the exurbs of major cities, trying to weigh the value of waiting it out or starting again back home. Women have been bound to the country through the Australian ex-partners who are fathers of their children, unable to provide necessities under social security law, unable to bring their tamariki home with them due to family law. Teenagers who moved here when they were very young and saw their households disintegrate around them are now on locked into a racisalised justice system with virtually no restorative support. There’s been a significant focus recently on the nearly two thousand New Zealanders detained and deported from Australia in the past few years, but we must also account for the social deprivation that marks many of those individual stories.

Now it feels like that deprivation is reaching across borders and infecting every system. New Zealanders in Australia aren’t all equally stranded: if they’ve lived here for a consecutive period of over ten years, they can qualify for a fixed-term six month grant of the Jobseeker or Youth Allowances, both of which have been doubled in the past week as the Federal Government reckons with the extent of the joblessness crisis.

My particular circle is comprised of people who have been here between two years and nine. In that group, I know people who have opened bars, played shows, saved lives, affected government and NGO policies, built buildings, curated galleries, won awards, had babies, cared for neighbours. We have put down roots. New Zealand will always feel like home, but it’s not where we could suddenly shift ourselves and expect to easily get by. Especially not now.

The answer is simple. There is an elementary retrospective social fairness in giving New Zealanders who have supported the Australian economy until now its support in return. But it also makes sense for future: our community, if it can stay put, will continue to give and give – culturally, socially, and economically. If we go back to New Zealand in droves now, both countries will struggle, and both positions will calcify. It should be noted that, at heart, Ardern doesn’t appear to be asking for anything that Australians don’t get in New Zealand right now.

This is a tough time but also a unifying one. ‘Kiwis abroad’ is always a pretty mortifying trope that conjures London Pākehā in All Blacks jerseys improvising haka on Waitangi Day, and Australian New Zealanders have been stratified by race, privilege and circumstance for decades. Yet this feels like a formative moment of consciousness – the realisation that we are all now more vulnerable, and that this is the time to form broad and deep networks of our own while also demanding the full protection of the state we have contributed to. Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini – your strength does not come from you alone, but from the strength of many.

Joe Nunweek

Joe Nunweek is a writer, lawyer and trade unionist from Aotearoa New Zealand, now ordinarily resident in Narrm. Prior to moving across the Tasman, he co-founded the NZ arts and culture website The Pantograph Punch.

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  1. Hello Joe,

    Thanks for bringing this situation to light.

    My husband is a Kiwi. He has owned property, worked and paid taxes here. He’s now retired and receives a joint Aust/NZ pension but needs home care. I’m studying and receive a minimum Austudy payment that ‘encourages’ me to work to bring weekly earnings to a subsistence level. Because he is not an Australian citizen, I can’t access the Carer Allowance or Pension and can’t work either as he needs daily assistance. Surely, neighbours can do better than this?

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