When he announced a conditional pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders last Friday, Malcolm Turnbull was attempting to soothe a persistent irritant in trans-Tasman relations. Rather than offering a proper remedy, though, he has added a new layer of complexity and discrimination to an already messy and unfair policy.
Tens of thousands of Australian-based New Zealanders do stand to gain from Turnbull’s new visa pathway. They must already live in Australia, satisfy health and character tests, and be able to show that they have paid tax on an income of at least $53,800 for five or more years. From July 1 next year, they will be able to gain permanent residence via the skilled independent category of the migration program. They can take the next step to citizenship after living in Australia for a further twelve months.
NZ prime minister John Key reckons up to 100,000 Australian Kiwis could take advantage of the new visa pathway, while the Department of Immigration and Border Protection offers a lower estimate of 60–70,000.
Making the transition to permanent residence will have a material impact on the lives of many New Zealanders, and offer them increased security and greater peace of mind. When they arrive in Australia they are granted aspecial category visa that enables them to live and work here indefinitely. They can also access Medicare, but they are denied most other forms of government assistance. If they fall on hard times, they can’t get unemployment benefits, youth allowance, sickness benefits or special benefits.
New Zealanders are required to pay levies for the National Disability Insurance Scheme but don’t have access to any its services. NZ women who leave an abusive partner will find that domestic violence services can offer them only limited assistance. Refuges often require residents to be in receipt of specified Centrelink payments, which New Zealanders aren’t entitled to even if their children are Australian citizens. Securing longer-term housing requires evidence of some source of income, a requirement many New Zealanders can’t meet without access to government benefits. Even returning to New Zealand may not be an option, since a mother can’t legally take her children out of Australia without the consent of the father.
The children of New Zealanders who want to go on to tertiary study after school (or mature age New Zealanders who want to upgrade their qualifications) must pay upfront fees for university; they are excluded from the Commonwealth’s income contingent Higher Education Loan Program. Fees are charged at the same rate as domestic students, not at international rates, but for many people the financial barrier to study is still insurmountable. (A limited exception has been in place since the start of 2016: a New Zealander qualifies for the concessional loans scheme if they arrived in Australia as “a dependent child aged under eighteen” and “have been ordinarily resident in Australia for the previous ten years.”
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Written by Peter Mares, Swinburne University of Technology