As many of the readership probably already know, the rights of the 300,000-odd New Zealanders who have moved to Australia since the 26th of February 2001 have been in the news on this side of the Tasman in the last few days. It’s primarily been driven by K-Rudd’s brother Greg, who put out a press release on Saturday saying that Aussies were “ungrateful bastards.” As somebody who has personal experience of this situation, and who also has friends and families in the same situation, I’d like to put some facts about the problem out there, and also offer some solutions.
Some background first. Prior to 1973 there was an informal arrangement between the two countries, and free movement between them. In 1973 the situation was formalised with the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement. On the 1st of July 1981 the requirement to carry passports was introduced by the Australian government. In 1984 New Zealanders lost the right to register to vote in Australia (people who had previously registered can still vote). On a side note, it might actually be unconstitutional to deny a New Zealander the right to vote in a federal election, since New Zealand is still defined as a state in the constitution of Australia (look at the definitions and clauses 8, 30, and 41) but it hasn’t been tested in court. That’s another story. On the 1st of September 1994 the Australian government introduced a new visa for New Zealanders, the subclass 444 visa, otherwise known as the “Special Category Visa.” It was introduced because of a change in the Migration Act requiring all non-citizens to hold a visa. Prior to the 1st September 1994 New Zealanders were considered “exempt non citizens” and were treated exactly the same as Australians, except for being allowed to vote. The new 444 visa had no practical effect on New Zealanders moving to Australia, it simply grants a visa when there was no previous visa. The visa was (and still is) granted at the border, with New Zealanders being processed the same as Australians at the border. At the time it was convenient to class the visa as a “long term temporary” visa, since a new one is issued every time a New Zealander (who is not a citizen or on a different permanent residency visa) crosses the border. For all practical purposes New Zealanders living in Australia were still considered permanent residents.
In 2001 the Howard government was under pressure to act on a public perception that deadshits from New Zealand were crossing the Tasman to live on the dole and smoke pot. According to some sources, John Howard said at there was no such problem; however I have not been able to find a credible link to confirm that. There was also a very real problem of people who were unable to gain Australian residency being granted New Zealand residency, becoming a citizen, and crossing the Tasman to live in Australia. Despite negotiations between the two countries, the Clark government would not change its immigration policy (and I believe it still remains the same), so the Howard government made new New Zealand immigrants ineligible for welfare payments from the 26th of February 2001. There are now two classes of 444 Special Category Visa. If the New Zealander was in Australia or was temporarily absent from Australia (i.e. they usually lived there) on the 26th of February 2001 they are granted a Protected Special Category Visa, and if not they get a normal SCV. The distinction is actually defined in the Social Security Act – the distinction is not mentioned in any migration law or regulation. Since then, there have been several other benefits, such as disaster relief payments, that have been denied to New Zealanders because they are long term temporary residents and not permanent residents.
Earlier this year the Gillard government announced the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will pay a benefit to any person who is disabled. It will be paid for by an additional levy on income tax. But guess what? 444 visa holders have to pay the levy, but will never get access to a payout if they become disabled. Other temporary visa holders, such as 457 (skilled temporary) visa holders, do not have to pay the levy.
The Australian government is inconsistent with how it treats people on unprotected 444 visas. On one hand the Tax Office treats them as residents for tax purposes – that is, they have to pay exactly the same as an Australian on the same income. The first home owner’s grant is available to all people on 444 visas. New Zealanders get the same subsidy for tertiary education. On the other hand, New Zealanders can’t borrow money through the HECS scheme to study at university. Many welfare benefits are not available – the dole is not available at all, no matter how long that person has lived in Australia. Unprotected 444 visa holders were unable to access the emergency payments for people who were caught out in the 2011 Brisbane floods. An unprotected 444 visa holder cannot get a carer’s pension, even if the person they are caring for is an Australian. On the other hand, if the person being cared for is an unprotected 444 holder, any other permanent resident or a citizen can get a carer’s pension. In addition, a child born in Australia to two New Zealand parents is not automatically an Australian citizen until they have lived in Australia until age 11. If a 444 visa holder wants to move to another country, he cannot cash out his compulsory super like other temporary residents (and permanent residents who cancel their visas) can. Additionally, it is not possible for an unprotected 444 visa holder to access his or her super in a time of severe financial hardship since the criteria for severe financial hardship requires him to be on a Centrelink benefit, which is not possible because he is on an unprotected 444 visa! As I mentioned, Australia will sometimes consider someone on an unprotected 444 visa a permanent resident; and as a temporary resident when it suits them.
Furthermore, it is not possible to apply to be an Australian citizen if you are on an unprotected 444 visa. To get citizenship you need to have lived in Australia for two of the previous five years, with one of those years being on a permanent residency visa. If it was possible to obtain citizenship this wouldn’t even be a discussion – the answer would be “apply for citizenship and shut up.” That is exactly what most would do, if it was possible.
The only option for obtaining citizenship is to become a permanent resident first. In the interests of full disclosure, it *might* be possible for me to get a 186 employer nominated permanent visa (it was initially intended as the next stage for 457 visa holders). I will have to get my employer on board to make it happen. I am planning on discussing it with my supervisor this week. Having recently graduated with a masters’ degree in geotechnical engineering I might also be able to get the 175 independent skilled migrant visa; however that will require leaving my stable and well paying job as an exploration geologist to become a graduate engineer. I have enough points to do it, but “geologist” is not on the Skilled Occupation List but “engineer” is. Both those visas cost over $3000. I am one of the lucky ones. There are many others who cannot get a permanent visa at all, including people who run their own businesses. These people have chosen to make Australia their home, they live and work here, but there is no option for them to make it formal.
Many people will be thinking “well, you knew about that when you moved there.” Yes, I did. And yes, Australia offers a better lifestyle for many New Zealanders than New Zealand does. But after six years, it has begun to grate on me. It pisses me off that there’s yet another government scheme that I have to pay for (the NDIS) but won’t ever be able to access – I have private insurance to cover that (and to be honest, I think that if Australians insured against it then we wouldn’t need the NDIS, but that’s a discussion for another day). It annoys me that I pay a shitload of tax every year and have no say in how it is spent. It further annoys me that I am paying tax so that deadshit Australians can live on the dole and bitch about how New Zealanders should go home. It also annoys me that there are thousands of Australians who say things like “we should be giving jobs to our own first” when those people without jobs either don’t want to work or are too useless to show up to work. If you don’t believe me, read the comments from the Courier Mail article (first hyperlink).
I have some ideas for solutions to this problem. The bit from here on in is entirely my opinion.
Ideally, 444 visa holders could become “protected” after (say) five years of living and supporting themselves in Australia, which would allow them apply for citizenship. Alternatively a new permanent visa could be created for 444 visa holders to apply for after they’ve been in the country for a certain amount of time, much like the 186 visa is available for 457 visa holders.
The 444 visa could be restricted to people who were New Zealanders at birth, which would remove the original rationale for the change.
The New Zealand government could make their immigration policy more compatible with Australia’s.
The Australian government could give 444 visa holders the right to vote. That won’t happen unless there’s a high court decision that the current arrangement is unconstitutional, or there is a simultaneous change to the status quo, since kiwis will vote for whoever will serve their purpose best. The second option won’t happen because there are probably a million Australian voters who disagree with that.
Additionally, the New Zealand political parties should be paying more attention to New Zealanders living in Australia. There are about 600,000 living here (the additional 300,000 have protected 444 visas and don’t have the problems I have been talking about). Most of them still have the right to vote in New Zealand, since the only requirement is to return to New Zealand once every three years. Those 600,000 people are the equivalent to the population of eleven New Zealand electorates. That is a shitload of constituents who are basically ignored. At the very least, the New Zealand government should be actively and publicly pressuring the Australian government to give unprotected 444 visa holders a pathway to citizenship.
Additionally, I would like to see list MPs based in Gold Coast (where 50% of the population originate from New Zealand), Sydney (where there are 150-200,000 New Zealanders), and Perth (about the same). Their role would be to lobby the federal and state governments in Australia, and to represent the interests of ex-pats in parliament in New Zealand.
I hope that this op-ed has helped to highlight the legal issues that New Zealand migrants to Australia have. I still think it is worth living here, however it’d be nice to be able to call myself an Australian and to be able to have a say in how the thousands of dollars I am required to give Canberra each year are spent.