On not moving to Australia

When I became editor of Overland’s online magazine, earlier this year, a few contributors who happened to know that I lived in New Zealand asked me if I had recently moved to Melbourne, or was planning to. I have written before in this space about the value I see in writing while foreign, and writing from another place. Those same ideas apply to editorial work, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to put them into practice at this time. However, there is another – some might say larger – issue: I couldn’t move to Australia even if I wanted to, due to having two children with autism.

As of 2001, New Zealand citizens and permanent residents wishing to move to Australia are given a non-protected Special Category Visa designed to give them full work rights and tax residency status, but not full access to the public services they contribute to nor the right to apply for citizenship down the line. This arrangement has some virtues for both countries, albeit much greater ones for the most powerful of the two. It turns Australia into a relief valve at times for high unemployment in New Zealand, and it allows Australia to tap into the New Zealand labour market without having to commit to offering full protections and long-term services to this same workforce, which it can therefore leave in a ‘temporary permanent’ kind of limbo. More recently, Australia has started deporting New Zealand individuals on this non-protected visa suspected of crimes, using the broad discretionary powers that govern immigration as opposed to the forensic standards of criminal justice. Some of these ‘New Zealanders’ have spent their entire life in Australia and have no family or social networks to turn to.

This treatment pales into insignificance when compared to that of asylum seekers at the border, but is governed by the same twin logic of exploitation and punishment that is applied to migration generally. Adding disability into the mix overlays a further dimension of exclusion with a long and painful history of its own. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 barred from entry into Australia ‘any idiot or insane person’ or ‘any person likely … to become a charge upon the public or upon any public or charitable institution’. These measures (New Zealand’s equivalent provisions date back to the 1880s) were grounded in the prevailing eugenicist beliefs of the time, but have proven remarkably resilient after the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In both countries, immigration officers are empowered to declare individuals as posing a ‘significant health burden’ to the respective communities, a status that can only be reversed by ad hoc ministerial interventions – which in turn usually require a case to have attracted very significant media attention for one reason or another.

Those, however, are by far the exception. The norm is for aspiring immigrants to be rejected – or, if they already lived in the country, deported – if they fail to clear the health and disability bar themselves or are found to have children who are disabled or chronically ill. The norm is for children born in Australia from parents on non-protected visas to be barred from accessing the National Disability Insurance Scheme until they reach the age of ten (at which point they can apply for citizenship); whereas, for children not born in Australia, this exclusion extends indefinitely.

Our children weren’t born in Australia, and so, while, technically, they could move with us, we would have to pay for all support services supplied via the NDIS, including at school. Add to the financial cost a psychological one, which would be just as prohibitive, due to uncertainty about future entitlements and provisions. We already live with this condition now. We’re already at the mercy of the whims of a dysfunctional and deficit-based disability-support regime. We couldn’t bear to take further risks, and lose what little supports we have eked out here in the process.

We thought about Melbourne once, in what seems like a previous life. I visited for a conference in 2004, and stayed with friends whose child attended a full-immersion Italian kindergarten. That aspect in particular seemed immensely appealing, as it’s much more difficult here to give the children access to half their culture. We only had our eldest at the time (he’s the one without autism). The idea never developed into anything resembling an actual plan, and maybe it wouldn’t have anyway.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m telling you all this. There is something almost obscene about the freedom of movement of certain subjects – my partner and I both have EU passports; ordinarily, the world would have few barriers for us – when one measures it against the strictures imposed on others, down to outright incarceration without trial, for the simple crime of being displaced or, worse, to send a cautionary message. Yet the discrimination suffered by our children intersects with theirs. It is part of a greater system of injustice that must be understood in order to be dismantled.

Also, I wanted to let you know why I won’t be moving to Australia.


Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash



Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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