I always forget I need my passport to go to Australia. My entire immediate family lives over there, scattered between Brisbane and Melbourne: my mother, my two sisters, my brothers-in-law, my niece, my father, stepmother, stepbrothers, and stepsister – and I nearly forget my passport every time I visit them, because the links between our countries are so close. In the years since I left home, I’ve crossed the lucky country’s eastern golden shores more often than I’ve returned through the gates of my own hometown.
Most of my family has been there for a decade, starting businesses that employ Australians and working consistently in government, health, child health, hospitality, insurance and travel. Which is lucky. Because if anything were ever to happen to them, they’d be hung out to dry by an Australian government that rakes in their taxes but provides little social safety net in return, other than telling them they should count themselves lucky to be entitled to live there at all.
I last visited in December, another Kiwi leaving Auckland Airport in jandals, crashing Oz for the holidays. But this time I was about to meet the first member of our next generation, my niece, who was born at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital a few days before Christmas. For a heartbeat, as she curled pink as a shell on her mother’s chest, she was the country’s newest Australian (though not quite). In fact, she wouldn’t be a proper Australian until she was 10 – and her parents, likely never.
For more than ten years, both her Kiwi parents have lived in Australia, where they’ve paid rent and taxes, bought cars and clothes and food, and worked constantly, sometimes in several jobs at once, as they made Australia their home. But if there was any hint of illness or disability lurking in my niece’s tiny body that day she was born, her parents would not be able to access much in the way of treatment for her until she reached age ten, severely impacting her start in life.
So far, she is perfectly healthy. But others aren’t, like six-year-old Toby Bensemann, who was born prematurely in Australia to Sydney-based New Zealand parents. Toby has multiple disabilities, including motor, aural and verbal dyspraxia, and mild cerebral palsy. But his parents can’t access all the services that are available despite paying their Medicare levy. ‘We are unfortunately having to pick which therapies we put him in at the moment because we can’t afford to do everything that he needs,’ Angela Bensemann told ABC in 2013. ’I feel that he’s not getting access to that best start that he deserves, as much as any other child deserves.’
Advocate David Faulkner told the show that the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee has ‘very clearly pointed out’ that international law prohibits such discrimination. The situation was ‘patently unfair’, New Zealand’s former New Zealand foreign minister and opposition spokesman, Phil Goff, said in 2013. ‘Who would really want to deny any child brought up in Australia as an Australian the right to these sort of services?’
New Zealanders who moved to Australia to live before 26 February 2001, hold ‘protected’ special category visas with the same state entitlements as Australian citizens. But those who arrived after do not. They hold a non-protected special category visa (SCV), a temporary visa that is unique to New Zealanders and can be altered at any time. New Zealanders can live, work, get Medicare, and access some low-paid benefits such as carer payments, the pension and a few child payments. But not much more – no sickness or disability, unless they’re classed as ‘severely disabled’, no housing support or state housing, and certainly no unemployment benefit.
If life dumped cold water over them, or the economy tanked and they lost their jobs, the unprotected New Zealanders don’t have the luxury of the normal social security nets that their taxes have paid for – that is, single parent, disability, sickness, unemployment, and job-seeking help. They won’t be able to get a student loan to assist them study with for a new career, or go to a foodbank or homeless shelter. Moreover, they can’t vote for the people who have made the decisions that have left them so exposed.
New Zealanders in Australia are permanently temporary, and it’s the same for their children – and if they don’t like it, according to those needlessly aggressive bumper stickers plastered on cars all over the country, they can leave.
‘If people on SCVs want permanent residency and the benefits attached to it, there are few available options,’ Samantha Prendergast wrote in a Guardian piece last year.
Permanent residency is granted when people meet criteria that make them valuable to the Australian community – and that usually means having a long-term relationship with an Australian citizen, being highly skilled, or being a wealthy under-50 year-old with plans to invest in an Australian company. For many people, especially young New Zealanders who moved here as kids, the criteria are hard to meet and the consequences of staying on a SCV can be severe.
Getting permanent residency is also expensive and time-consuming, with a two-year waiting period, which requires immediate family links or a skills-based points system. Even Russell Crowe, the consummate Aussie, is affected. He’s a New Zealander who moved to Australia when he was four. Crowe has been on a stamp – the only non-Australian other than the Queen to have the honour – and has been voted one of Australia’s 50 national treasures, yet, despite trying twice, he still hasn’t become an Australian. He told British magazine Radio Times, in an article titled ‘What do I have to do to get citizenship?’, that his applications in 2006 and 2013 had been turned down. ‘It’s so so … unreasonable,’ he told the magazine. ‘No matter how long you’d been in the country, if you weren’t in Australia for the majority of 2000 to 2002 – when I was particularly busy filming overseas – you can’t become a citizen.’ (The Department of Immigration claims to have no records of Crowe’s applications.)
Not far from Crowe’s $14m Sydney apartment is Bourke St Park, or, as everyone seems to know it, Kiwi Park: it’s where homeless New Zealanders in Sydney congregate and sleep. They’re some of an estimated nearly 150,000 New Zealanders living on the edge. One Australian government study from 2011 reported that New Zealanders made up 14 per cent of an estimated 91,627 people who used homelessness services in Australia between July and September that year.
Paul Hamer, a historian at the Victoria University of Wellington, has studied the issue for his PhD, with a particular focus on Maori and Pacific Island New Zealanders. About 240,000 New Zealanders arrived in Australia between 2001 and June 2011, and Griffith University estimated that about 40 per cent may have been eligible for permanent residency, but Hamer says the prohibitive cost, about $4000, puts most people off.
It’s fairly obvious where this bias has come from, Hamer says – a misplaced, decades-old hysteria about New Zealanders arriving to lounge on beaches and collect the dole, otherwise known as the ‘Bondi bludger’ stereotype.
Certainly, there’s a sneering anti-Kiwi fervour that’s not only on display during the final of the cricket. Such sentiment is also whipped up by shows like an infamous episode of A Current Affair, which aired in January 2014, advertised thus:
Tonight, Kiwis campaigning for the Aussie dole. They’re coming to our cities for our jobs – now, they’re fighting en masse to rewrite our welfare rules. Should you pay so they can stay?
‘Bondi is far too expensive for New Zealand migrants to live in and with the unavailability of the dole, that whole stereotype is so ironic now,’ Hamer says. Back in 1986 the unemployment benefit was available immediately if you ticked on your arrival card that you were intending to stay permanently. A number of New Zealanders would have exploited that, Hamer says, adding that the ‘Bondi bludger’ tag has obvious racial connotations that can be traced back to the early 1980s when Maori, who had a strong presence in the area, staged a housing protest.
Peter Mares, an adjunct fellow at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, traced the origins of that stereotype in an excellent February 2014 essay for The Conversation. He pointed to a national streak of concern, prevalent from the mid 1980s until the early 1990s, that New Zealanders were displacing locals in the labour market.
It is unclear whether the core problem is that New Zealanders work too hard, and so threaten to ‘steal Aussie jobs’, or whether they are too lazy, and so threaten to sponge off the generous and unwitting Australian taxpayer.
Mares notes that in 1988, Brisbane’s Sunday Sun reported on a Liberal Party survey that found that hostility towards Kiwi dole bludgers ‘romped in’ as the issue of greatest concern to Queensland voters.
The facts hardly supported the fear. One 1989 file Mares came across in Wellington’s Archives New Zealand estimated that for every $1 in unemployment benefits paid to New Zealand citizens, the Australian government received more than $10 in tax revenues from working New Zealanders.
These days, New Zealanders living in Australia also have a higher labour-force participation rate – 78.2 per cent – than people who were actually born in Australia (68 per cent). Hamer says that at the time of the 2001 changes New Zealand pointed out that welfare payments may be costing Australia $800m a year, but that Australia was actually taking $2.5b in tax from New Zealanders residing in Australia.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric held strong, and in 1986 the Hawke government moved to a six-month stand-down period before newly arrived New Zealanders could claim unemployment benefits. In 2000, that extended to two years, the standard for other permanent migrants. And then there were the 2001 changes.
Hamer says the issue was brought to light during the devastating 2011 Queensland floods; there was a brief uproar when it became obvious that New Zealanders weren’t initially eligible for disaster relief payment, but the government relented.
Erina Anderson, of advocacy group Iwi n Aus, says she sees a huge range of situations. A teacher, she and her husband have fostered Australian children before, but found she wasn’t entitled to some kinds of support for them because she was a New Zealander. Yet New Zealanders are eligible for some grants, like a first-home buyers’ payment. ‘That says, we want you to stay,’ Anderson points out. That’s another issue: mixed messages.
‘When this issue is being discussed in the media it centres around welfare, but there’s a far deeper issue than that – it’s the ability to access citizenship, and with that comes equality,’ Anderson says. ‘If you can’t access that it’s a real problem and affects every area of your life. I dare say a large proportion of New Zealanders that are here are unaware of the complexities and depths of the situation.’
In Australia, Anderson says, the New Zealand visa is substandard compared to other types of temporary visas – New Zealanders are treated the worst, ‘at the bottom of the pile’.
I think the attitude it what’s really difficult, in that immigration politicians and Tony Abbott support this believe that New Zealanders are lucky to be allowed in the country, let alone expect anything else. It’s a joke really. People fall through enormous cracks and the visa system is setting them up for failure.
One example of the multi-layered issues that can arise is the case of an 18-year-old woman she dealt with about six months ago. She was originally a refugee to New Zealand, moving there with her parents when she was two and granted citizenship. When she was ten, the family moved to Australia, but within five years there were serious problems going on in the family, including ‘terrible abuse’. She was removed from the family by court order and is not allowed contact with her family, but is also not entitled to any kind of financial assistance, which means any service providers that try and assist her don’t get funding for her care.
‘So she’s being protected by the law but is not taken care of by the state at all, and neither country will take responsibility for her,’ Anderson says. ‘The young girl has been living off some services who have taken her under their wing. They could not turn her out on to the streets.
‘We put her on a plane and send her back to New Zealand, what happens when she arrives at the airport? Does someone pick her up, take her to a safe house? Does someone ensure she has the financial support she needs? As long as the system is the way it is, these numbers are only going to grow.’
The New Zealand Government has responded, repeatedly, that there’s nothing they can do about the situation; John Key has said on many occasions that New Zealanders need to know what they’re getting into if they decide to move across the Tasman. ‘We wouldn’t take our riding instructions from the Australian Government of how Australians should be treated in New Zealand any more than we are going to dictate terms to the Australian Prime Minister of how New Zealanders should be treated in Australia,’ he said at a press conference ahead of the two countries’ annual talks in 2013.
The argument may even reach the United Nations. New Zealand’s Te Karere channel reported in March that the Awateres, a Māori family living in Australia, will take a complaint of racial discrimination to the United Nations, saying their Australian-born son who suffers from cerebral palsy is being denied his basic rights.
Hamer believes a complex rewrite of the rules is necessary. ‘You’ll get some who say Australia should have the same rules as we have, and the rights should be the same. I don’t think we can really expect that,’ he says. ‘Others say give everyone who’s there at the moment a permanent visa so they have access to citizenship, and then change the rules.’
I think a fairer thing would be to accept that Australia is going to want to have a significant waiting period before people can progress to a permanent visa, but maybe make it five years. That’s an increase from the old two-year waiting period that gave full access to benefits, which existed immediately before the 2001 changes. I think it might be a reasonable compromise and in that time you could hardly accuse anyone of moving to Australia for better benefits.
He’d also ensure children born in Australia to New Zealand parents are Australian citizens at birth, so they could be covered for all health eventualities.
Women suffering domestic violence who are ineligible for emergency housing will quite often be turned away from women’s refuge because they aren’t in Centrelink, and can’t be reimbursed. I think the student loan help should be available – it’s not a benefit, it’s a loan, and it should be available to all New Zealanders, because I think it’s important for adults to have the ability to retrain.
Anderson’s view is that Australia should shut the gates. ‘I think it’s far more humane to expect our people to apply for a valid visa whether it’s temporary or permanent, but to make that process very transparent, just like any other migrant has to do from another country.’
The situation isn’t fair, but it isn’t likely to change soon. It’s an unusual form of disenfranchisement, particularly because 80,000 Australians are treated well in New Zealand – they can access most social services, including single parenting payments and student loans. When Australians come to New Zealand, they’re automatically given residency as soon as they clear immigration, just like New Zealanders used to be, which means they can work indefinitely in their adopted country. After two years they gain full access to social welfare and, after five, they can apply for New Zealand citizenship.
At the conclusion of annual bilateral talks a year ago, reporters questioned Tony Abbott over the fairness of New Zealanders paying taxes across the ditch without receiving many benefits, a situation wildly different for Australians living in New Zealand. Abbott simply said New Zealanders were lucky to be given access to a life there. In response, John Key said New Zealanders should get used to being Australia’s guest workers. Again, if you don’t like it, leave. Easier said than done. It’s hard to wrestle free the roots put down in a new country – and that goes for any immigrant who arrives with hope for a better life.
On the evening of Christmas Day, when my niece was five days old, my mother and I returned to our housesit down the road from my sister’s. There was a knock at the door, and we opened it to a young woman standing on the doormat, a small blond boy by her side. She was crying. An older man stood a few metres away on the footpath, weeping too, the thumb and forefinger of one hand pressed hard into his eyes.
‘I’m so sorry,’ the woman said to us, between gasps.
‘Oh my God,’ Mum said. ‘What’s happened?’
Her name was Sinead. She was Irish. This was her son, and that was her father. Her mother had lived in this house and she was dead, she said, indicating a tattoo of a date in Gothic script on her thin forearm. She was so sorry, but could she please come in? She just had to see where her mother had lived in her last days.
The trio walked down the hall and into the living room, but going further into the house was too much. Her father requested a trip to the backyard, where he seemed to compose himself. He came back in, and told us, in a thick Irish accent: ‘She had bipolar. And she drank.’ We didn’t ask how she died.
Irish, but Australian, with memories lying thick on the city and embedded in the bones of its landscape. I couldn’t help but think that if mental illness or addiction struck a member of my family and they ended up on the streets, there wouldn’t be much help for them in the lucky country.