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Begging The Question: What future for Kiwis in Oz?

It’s now a month since New Zealanders ceased to be de facto Australians, free to attain the status of “permanent residents” simply by setting foot across the Tasman and doing time. In his debut Scoop column Jimmy Solen rings the changes.

Allowing for a sunset clause, the last New Zealanders so privileged to become de facto Australians will have had to have settled in Australia by 26 May. Coincidentally this is the same month that Australia’s celebration of its Federation 100 years ago will reach another stage of tub-thumping to mark the opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia in Melbourne in 1901.

As an historical note it’s interesting that the 1901 Australian Federal Government passed an Act ending the employment of Pacific Islanders. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 received Royal Assent on 23 December 1901. It was described as an Act "to place certain restrictions on immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited immigrants".

Among those it prohibited from immigration were the insane, anyone likely to become a charge upon the public or upon any public or charitable institution, and any person suffering from an infectious or contagious disease, "of a loathsome or dangerous character". It also prohibited prostitutes, criminals, and anyone under a contract or agreement to perform manual labour within the Commonwealth (with some limited exceptions).

It is quite right to say that in 2001 the gates are still open for New Zealanders to enter, live and work in Australia but it can equally be said that in the long-run Kiwi ‘sheep’ are being put into a different paddock with access to fewer entitlements.

The best description for this next generation of Kiwi-Australians so far was probably provided by the Sydney Morning Herald reporter who used the term “guest workers”.

The reportage within New Zealand has been, as per usual, less than investigative, and as with most NZ-Australian coverage characterised by a rather shallow once-over treatment fixated on old positions and regurgitated phrases.

This particular ‘fate accompli’ was of course well foreshadowed by leak after leak and introduced with what was apparently a flurry of bureaucratic haste. A lack of public debate or opposition coupled with an absence of subsequent ripples, has made for a quiet time all round. Not that any journalists are noticeably following, or should I say following up, the story. The few Kiwi politicians who spied a soapbox, abandoned it just as quickly. Nor have the required law changes made a blip as yet.

To adapt an Australian expression we could all think ‘why worry, mate?’ After all the change is only aimed at dole bludgers and ‘back door’ immigrants, isn’t it?

But the numbers of people affected alone should beg some more searching questions.

For a start where were the figures on the impact or otherwise of Australia changing the benefits waiting period in 2000 – supposedly an answer to the concern about bludgers, but one that hadn’t even had time to get off the ground?

And in five years time will the efforts and exclusivity placed on who attains the status of a fully processed and certified new settler be seen as misplaced and overdone in the case of New Zealand (harmonized policies or not)?

To the Australian Cabinet Minister who considers that New Zealand is quick to display small country syndrome on various issues, the obvious rejoinder is that our continental neighbour suffers from its own form of big country syndrome and a tendency to over-react.

More fundamental answers about how the change plays out and its fuller set of motives will be found in the detail of who meets the criteria for permanent resident, ‘rights to everything’ status in the future, and the impact on the composition of the ex-pat New Zealand community.

It’s debatable how much is known about the human face of the existing Kiwi community across the ditch.

Australia’s Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs does put out a fact sheet titled New Zealanders in Australia (see Fact Sheet 6). It received some minimal updating after 26 February and continues to assert that New Zealand citizens are not counted as part of Australia’s annual migration program, avoiding the point that such figures will emerge in the future.

The Department also produces Community Profiles based on Census statistics. The latest titles in this series includes profiles for migrants born in New Zealand and 19 other countries.

In 1961 the difference in the transposition of nationals between the two countries was a mere 12,000 – 35,000 Australians here and 47,000 New Zealanders there. This was some 12 years before Australia shed its discriminatory immigration policies and it should be added that “foreign” New Zealanders have consistently helped buoy up the statistical proportion of overseas born persons in Australia regardless of their almost unofficial status.

By the last Australian Census in 1996 the numbers of New Zealand born citizens living in Australia was 291,000 or 1.6 per cent of the total Australian population.

About 40% had arrived in Australia before 1981, deemed to be a low figure given such a long history of trans-Tasman migration and unlike the well-established migrant communities from Europe, the “second generation” of transplanted Kiwis did not outnumber their parents.

Nevertheless the Census found that the Kiwi-Australian second generation numbered 199,883, half of whom were aged 15 years or under.

The summary to the 1996 profile, released in January 2000, made the point that it has been estimated that one in five new arrivals from New Zealand came to Australia for family reasons. It closes with an interesting comment that on present trends, including intermarriage with Australians, “the majority of trans-Tasman migrants might be more accurately described as Australasians rather than as belonging more especially to one country or the other”.

A little irony to keep in mind when the first reports of people caught on the wrong side of the new regime begin to filter through and the new border control regime begins to bite.

As that leading example of Trans-Tasman migration Russell Crowe put it recently, when you’re on, “the downside of advantage”, courage is a useful ally. That or being an Antipodean?

- EDITOR’S NOTE: Jimmy Solen’s Begging the Question column is expected to become a new regular feature on Scoop.

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