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Australia – ‘Tis the Season for Kiwi Bashing

Simon Orme writes from Sydney

Kiwi bashing has broken out in Australia in the lead up to Christmas, culminating in the revelation of a new deal between Canberra and Wellington, under which Kiwis moving to Australia need to meet the standard Australian immigration criteria to qualify for social security and other benefits.

The deal would heavily dilute the special immigration relationship between New Zealand and Australia. It may come to be seen as a major reversal of the general move since the mid 1980s toward closer economic and political relations between the two countries.

While Kiwi bashing by Australia is to be expected, one can’t help wondering whether there is some Kiwi bashing by Wellington going on here.

News of the proposed inter-governmental deal made the front page of this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), under the heading “Kiwi immigration to be halved”. Today’s follow up suggests Australia expects to save $100m annually in social security payments, as a result.

This follows a front-page story the previous weekend highlighting Australian concerns that New Zealand was a back door route for (mainly Asian) migrants seeking to move to Australia. Nearly a third of New Zealanders moving to Australia are not New Zealand born.

In between these two, there were mid week stories drawing odious comparisons between Australia’s decision to spend a mozza on new defence toys and New Zealand’s relatively modest defence expenditure. A newspaper cartoon had a kiwi soldier piggy backing on an Ozzie under the caption “the new spirit of ANZAC”.

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At the end of November, two major Australian newspapers ran stories on New Zealand’s economic decline. An Australian based Kiwi journalist lamented the loss of industry in his old hometown of Lower Hutt.

Earlier in November, New Zealand was also under criticism in the media for exporting ‘harmful’ goods into Australia, namely apples and ‘energy drinks’. All the caffeine/guarana drinks on sale in Australia come from New Zealand because of silly Australian regulations, while Australian apple growers wouldn’t be able to compete on price or quality with Kiwi apples.

The exception to this deluge of “let’s down Kiwi” stories was an article in last weekend’s SMH magazine on success and charisma. New Zealander Amanda Ellis, formerly a colleague of mine at the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who now works at Westpac, was exhibit one.

But let’s go back to the new social security deal. Under the rules already in place, Kiwis do not become eligible for Australian social security (eg the dole and medicare) until they have been resident for two years. The previous threshold had been six months. The notion that Kiwis can come over, sign on for the dole, and then surf at Bondi or Byron Bay is simply a popular, enduring myth over here.

Also overlooked in Australia is the fact the New Zealand Government reimburses Canberra for certain social security benefits paid to Kiwis resident in Australia. The amount is NZ$169m in the current year, according to a report in the NZ media today.

The ‘problem’ is that Australia apparently spends almost $NZ1billion every year on social security spending for Kiwis living in Australia. This includes A$204m on “single parent” benefits – the old DPB in Kiwi terminology.
The new restrictions are apparently aimed at reducing Australia’s social security spend on Kiwis resident in Australia. They do this by making Kiwis meet the same occupational and other immigration criteria applied to all other nationalities seeking to enter Australia. Australia estimates this would knock out around half the average $30,000 Kiwis crossing the Tasman each year.

There would be no direct effect on the 406,000 Kiwis already resident in Australia.

The suggestion is that, if Wellington had not agreed to the new restrictions, Canberra would have sent Wellington a bill for $100m a year, on top of the $170, social security payments already being paid. The Prime Minister is reported as saying "Why on earth would we pay money to people who are turning their backs and leaving the country?"

There are two major problems with this statement. The first is the implication that Kiwis in Australia have repudiated their homeland. Simon Upton’s notion in his current column of a broader Kiwi nationhood inclusive of the diaspora is far preferable.

Second, the statement misses the key point, which is why should NZ taxpayers contribute to Australia’s social welfare budget? The available evidence suggests the 406,000 Kiwis resident in Australia contribute at least their share, if not more. We are more likely to be employed and earn above average incomes (ie pay higher taxes).

From time to time Kiwis resident in Australia may draw on social security. But typically they - or their parents if they are young - have paid Australian taxes for many years. There is no earthly reason why NZ taxpayers should pay the DPB for a 30-year-old who has lived and worked in Australia since she was 16.

There is not enough information in the public domain to enable an assessment of whether there really is a social security ‘deficit’ owed to Australia under the current rules.

Perhaps a more plausible interpretation of the latest moves is that Canberra wishes to block the ‘backdoor immigration route’ into Australia.
However, there could be some undesirable side effects. Less qualified but nevertheless energetic and typically successful Kiwis (the people who close the gaps by their own determination) will find it tougher to make the move. They may surge over here early next year to beat the new measures.

A side effect of the deal may be to force Kiwis to become Ozzies. This is something the great majority of us have resisted so far, perhaps for the reasons outlined in Simon Upton’s column.

Many of us ensure we maintain a minimum “K-cell count” (c.f. T-cell count for HIV sufferers) by consuming Kiwi wine, butter, guarana drinks and so on.
Probably the key problem underlying the TransTasman social welfare payment debate is that the bulk of Kiwi’s resident in Australia are Kiwi citizens but Australian taxpayers. One way of solving the problem is simply to remove the source of ambiguity.

It seems to be working so far. A common response here over the weekend to the new deal was “I am taking out Ozzie citizenship”.

There has always been pressure from the Australian side to do this, notably ex PM Paul Keating. Now Wellington seems to be joining in.

Just as well the 406,000 Kiwis here are - to a person – easily as tough as Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

© Copyright: Simon Orme 2000
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