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.