200,000 New Zealanders live in Australia without a helping hand

By Paul Hamer
Aus NZ flag

At least 200,000 New Zealanders live in Australia today without a social security safety net or direct pathway to citizenship. They are ineligible for unemployment and sickness benefits, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, public housing in most states, federal disaster relief, and – with a new exception for those who arrived as dependent minors and have lived in Australia for a decade – student loans.

In February 2001, the Howard Government restricted access to social security and Australian citizenship for newly arriving New Zealanders. Their ability to live and work in Australia for an unlimited time remained, but to obtain benefits or citizenship they first had to get a permanent visa, which is not only expensive – $3,600 for the primary applicant and $1,800 for partners – but also dependent on age and skills criteria. Those who had arrived to live before February 2001 had a straightforward pathway to citizenship and access to social security after a waiting period (that in 2000 was raised to two years).

Australian officials projected in 2000 that, under the new restrictions, less than half of future New Zealand migrants would qualify for a permanent visa. As it has transpired, far fewer have even bothered to apply. For many, the cost is prohibitive and the chance of success too uncertain, while for some – who are unlikely to need the support of the state – there seems little point in going to the expense and trouble.

As New Zealanders in Australia face increasing inequity, calls have been made for the Australian government to reverse many of the 2001 changes. The Gillard Government toyed with the idea of providing a pathway to permanence after eight years of residence but abandoned the idea. It did promise to reinstate access to student loans for some young New Zealanders just before it left office, with the Turnbull Government finally making good on the undertaking in November last year. But there has been no movement on other sore points, like the NDIS exclusion.

In 2014, changes to section 501 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) made it easier for Australia to cancel the visas of non-citizens with criminal records and deport them, and by 2015 New Zealanders had become practically the largest national group in immigration detention.

It therefore came as something of a surprise when Malcolm Turnbull and John Key announced on 19 February this year that New Zealanders who had arrived to live in Australia since 26 February 2001 would have a new pathway to a permanent visa and citizenship. From mid-2017, New Zealanders who arrived up to 19 February, 2016, and have earned above the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold of $53,900 for five successive years, will be eligible to apply for a permanent visa. For many, this will remove the uncertainty and unfairness of the skills requirements, which even highly paid New Zealanders have often failed to meet because their particular occupation is not deemed to be in demand in Australia. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection explains that the new pathway benefits those who have made a “contribution to Australia” and demonstrated that they have a “reasonable means of support”.

At first glance this seems a remarkable development. Turnbull has been prepared to go where Abbott, Gillard, and Rudd had not, by relaxing the 2001 exclusion for potentially tens of thousands of people. A New Zealand Herald opinion writer enthused that the deal “was reasonable, balanced and sets a valuable precedent. It is the basis for a new, permanent, transtasman citizenship.”

But while the new deal will enable some thwarted by the skills test to obtain a permanent visa, for many New Zealanders little will change. Just as in 2001, Australia expects that less than half will be eligible to apply. The same steep application fees that have previously deterred the majority of potentially eligible applicants also remain in place. Applicants will still need to undergo expensive health tests even though New Zealanders are eligible for Medicare.

The announcement will also do little to alleviate the plight of those worst affected by the 2001 changes. Health problems and disabilities will still disqualify applicants for a permanent visa. Working-class New Zealanders – despite being valued by the Australian economy – will either fall below the income threshold or be unable to afford the application fees (or both). The income threshold favours men, whose median income is considerably higher than women; a “contribution” to Australia is measured only in tax payments, and not in roles such as caregiving. The threshold also maintains the disadvantage faced by Māori and Pacific Islanders, whose earnings are lower.

And, of course, the changes apply only to those who arrived in Australia up until 19 February. Within a few years, as the migration of New Zealanders to Australia inevitably picks up again, we will be back at square one.

In other words, Turnbull’s new deal does more than just open a pathway to citizenship for the well-paid; it entrenches an ongoing disenfranchisement for the poor. Some might say that bus drivers, baristas and factory workers should stay in New Zealand, but the integration of the two economies encourages (and even depends upon) the free flow of labour across the Tasman.

Turnbull’s deal offers a step forward in one respect, but it does nothing to address the underlying unfairness whereby significant numbers of New Zealanders live permanently in Australia – and by definition support themselves – but are never able to receive a helping hand from the state in times of hardship.


  • steve

    The only viable solution to this, incase Australia is hard to convince, would be that New Zealand government would have to “extend” its coverage to NZ citizens in Australia by setting up government offices there in return for taxes to be paid to New Zealand government. NZ government can discuss this with the Australian government and try to expand the Trans-Tasman framework to include this possibility.

    The other option would be to upgrade to an E.U style Australasian Union.

    • Liza

      Steve, your suggestion neatly absolves Australia of it’s obligations. Why should New Zealand tax payers support people who reside overseas?

      New Zealanders residing in Australia have 78 percent workforce participation rate. Their taxes are more than sufficient to cover any payments made to New Zealanders residing in Australia. This was also the case in 2001 but Howard got greedy and wanted reimbursement from NZ as well as keeping all taxes paid by Kiwis.

      • Steve

        Liza, if you read carefully, it is New Zealanders who work in Australia, pay their taxes to New Zealand government instead of Australia. This is the only viable option if Australia refuses to change the laws. New Zealand on the other hand can extend its coverage in exchange for the taxes paid from NZers working in Australia. It is fair.

        By paying taxes to NZ government instead of Australian Government, the taxes don’t go waste as it is going now, and it can return in form of Studylink aid and other forms if the tax paying Kiwi in Australia needs NZ government support there. It is the best way forwards for this.

        • Cörrie May

          But bro I love Australia I want to live here for the rest of my life, serve in this countries military and fire services and pay tax to Canberra’s pockets till the day I die, all from money I earned enriching the mining industry here. All i ask in return is that you call me Australian too. Y’all let Amerifats do it, and the pommes (well you won’t even let them join the military but everyone is happy for me to literally throw my life away on ol malcoms order), but when it comes to the largest international influx population who incidentally have the highest workforce participantion rate out of any immigrant nationality, we get the shorted, ugliest and definitely most heartwrenching end of the stick.

  • Leanne

    Maybe NZ got needs to tighten up on Australians becoming NZ citizens, it’s so easy for them to access benefits and citizenship.

    Also why does Australia make it easy for other nationalities to take up residence/citizenship in Australia, half of them cannot even speak good English or commit to the western way of life aka berkas, halal etc etc.

    • Liza

      New Zealand’s Human Rights Act prevents it from mistreating Australians resident in NZ as inhumanely as the Australian govt sees fit to treat Kiwis.

  • Kevin Francis

    We are kiwi’s living in Australia since 2003. Self employed until last year. As both of us are over the age of 65 so after selling our business last year we decided to apply for NZ super. What a nightmare. Rules here state we can get it but on the same rules that apply to Australia Citizens which means it is means tested. Application lodged through Centrelink in December, and still waiting 4 months later. Told it would only take 28 days. Now if you’re an Australian Citizen living in NZ and have reached the magic age do the same rules apply to them. About time this was an even playing field, instead of being told, ” If you don’t like it go back to NZ.”. W e too would like a fair deal”.

  • Adam McGregor

    I agree with Leanne when she suggests that maybe NZ needs to get tighter citizenship laws. However we don’t make it easier for other countries to become citizens, this is a misconception. New Zealanders have been put in the same boat as all other countries with regards to becoming a citizen. I would like to see the trans Tasman alliance abolish as it is creating too much confusion. the SCV is basically a free pass to live and work in our country without needing to apply for permanent residency or a working Visa. Great that people take advantage of this, but than why want more? I’m beginning to think that no matter what Australia does to enhance relation but at the same time protect our borders, the NZ people in Australia with the SCV will winge.
    In 2001 Australia draw a line in the sand, Guys find out this information before you move countries, your the one making the move. If you moved to Afghanistan would you than say your treated unfairly as there shouldn’t be a war on? NO I wouldn’t move there!!!!
    You make choices on the information you have, and it is up to those making the choices to seek out that information. Both countries need to start looking after their citizens first for a while, re-group and than move forward.

    • Anton

      Adam, I am a kiwi, I have an Australian wife, and 2 Australian kids. I cannot apply for citizenship until I have been in Australia for almost 10 years. Americans, Canadians, Brits and South Africans can apply for citizenship after being in Australia for 2 years – This is definitely NOT fair and equal treatment. Futhermore, did you hear about the law the Aus government passed whic allowed them to Re-incarcerate kiwis who had spent a cumulative total of more than 1 year in prison and deport them to NZ?? This even applied if they moved to Aus as a baby and dont know anyone in NZ!! They also moved these kiwis to offshore detention centres before deportation to NZ, which meant the Aus government was able to strip NZers of their human rights and right to legal representation. I am calling it the death of the Anzacs – what has NZ or its people ever done to hurt our relationship and deserve such back of the bus treatment??

      Im looking at a AUD $50,000 Tax bill this year on money that isnt even in Australia!!! Its my inheritance, that I invested wisely in NZ – and for the privilege of standing on Australian soil I am liable for capital gains tax on it – and dont pay a cent of tax to the NZ government – how is that fair in any way??

      In net terms NZ’ers contribute very well to Aus and this token citizenship gesture from the Aus government is proof that the government wants us to work here, but doesn’t want to offer us social services. I say this because currently more NZers are migrating back to NZ than ever before – in early 2015 (not sure about now) more NZers were moving home than coming to Aus – and this has obviously got Turnbull worried. After the treatment and legislation over the last few years – I have decided to move my family back to NZ – where people treat people of all types and colours humanely.

  • Jayne Fraider

    I moved to sydney some time at the beginning of 86 and went home in october of the same year i think.
    I moved from nz to perth in dec 2014 and am living and working here.,
    I turn 51 in May. Am i able to apply for a permanent visa and if so who do i contact and how do i go about it?

    • QueenBee

      Yes you can apply for a Return Resident visa

  • I have a friend who’s been in Australia since 2006 and she has had two children here she can’t get help from social workers nor can she even get a payment.. How can she get anything being here she is homeless with two children is there seriously nothing can be done if her children were born and raised here isn’t there places and ways to help this young girl get a place to live and get access to some kind of payment

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  • Brad

    I moved from Auckland and lived in Sydney from the mid 80s until heading to the UK for work in the late 90s. During my time in Sydney I had my own business, employed over a dozen Australians and dutifully paid my taxes. Mr Howard changed things in Feb 2001 while I was living in the UK, where I had no knowledge or information about the changes. I came back to live in Australia – my adopted home – about 8 years ago, only to find I could not become a permanent resident and apply for citizenship. I’m not interested in access to unemployment benefits etc; I just want to be able to bring my overseas partner to live here with me legally. At present there is no way that we can apply for a partner visa. This rule/Act is discriminatory and against my/our human rights. It needs to be repealed now!