Documents released (pdf) under Freedom of Information reveal the Federal Government is worried about a growing “underclass” of New Zealanders living and working in Australia with limited rights and without access to basic government services.
The FOI release from the Departments of Community Services, Immigration and Foreign Affairs show that as far back as 2008 there was increasing concern for the estimated 566,000 New Zealand citizens now living in Australia, drawn here by a “40 per cent wage gap”. At least 240,000 fall into the post 2001 non-protected visa category.
New Zealanders can live and work in Australia indefinitely as Special Category Visa holders, but following changes to the migration program those who arrived after 2001 fall into the “non-protected category” with no access to basic social services such as unemployment benefits, parenting payments, sickness allowance or HECS-funded study. They will not be covered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme when it begins.
In early 2009, with the GFC beginning to hurt, the situation was making itself clear to staff at the Department of Community Services. In March of that year a section manager working for the department’s international policy section wrote: “We have recently seen an increase in correspondence around non protected SCV holders and their inability to access working age payments. I suspect this issue will only intensify with the downturn in the economy.”
A formal briefing document prepared for the Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin more than a year later in July 2010 outlines the situation further:
“There is growing evidence that an increasing number of New Zealand Citizens living in Australia are finding themselves in financial hardship, due to their ineligibility for Australian social security payments and difficulties obtaining Australian permanent residency.”
More revealing is a hand written note made by another Community Services bureaucrat during a meeting in March 2010: “Minister [Macklin] is concerned about the people who don’t have rights — underclass — with NZers”.
The notes from another meeting later that year in December between Community Services staff and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) makes it clear the matter has been referred to the Prime Minister’s office more than once but that still no course of action had been decided at either the ministerial or departmental level.
All the while the number of New Zealanders on unprotected visas continue to arrive; a January 2010 file from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs makes an alarming future projection.
“In 2010, there were approximately 566,000 New Zealanders living and working in Australia and this is a trend that is likely to intensify as the wage gap increases and the impact of earthquake [sic]moves through the New Zealand system. On current trends, there will be nearly one million New Zealanders living in Australia by the end of this decade”, the report states.
“For many New Zealanders, the freedom of movement between the two countries, the right to reside and work and to access certain benefits means that citizenship is not seen as desirable or necessary. Although technically eligible to apply for permanent residency and then citizenship, many would not meet the criteria for the Skilled Migrant Visa, meaning they effectively have no pathway to citizenship.”
The distress and anger created by the current arrangements can be seen in the comments left by people signing an online petition demanding better treatment for New Zealanders living in Australia.
“I feel like a second class citizen. I financially support my Australian partner and my stepdaughter,” one signatory wrote. “Yet if I loose [sic]my job I am entitled to no financial support here and would force my return to NZ.”
“The moment I stepped foot on Australian soil I became an Australian ‘resident’ for ‘tax’ purposes only. I cannot become a permanent resident, or a citizen, and most importantly — I cannot vote.”
“We have worked hard, lived honestly and became “Australian” by choice for the last 9.5 years, for what? Now that my husband is sick and unable to work we are treated like we are nothing, no sickness benefit.”
The Howard government made changes to migration arrangements for New Zealanders in 2001 over concerns they were placing a financial burden on the welfare system. Anyone arriving under the Trans-Tasman agreement after 2001 was effectively locked out of a range of social services.
By contrast Australians living in New Zealand are able to apply for social benefits after two years and full citizenship after five years.
A joint study of Trans-Tasman issues by the Productivity Commissions of Australia and New Zealand released in December last year highlighted many of the problems faced by New Zealanders living and working in Australia and the lack of remedy through limited pathways to citizenship.
According to the study, under Howard’s changes to the migration rules in 2001 New Zealanders living in Australia cost the Government $1 billion annually but contributed tax revenue of $2.5 billion.
Despite being able to come to Australia without a visa application process, many New Zealanders will never be eligible for citizenship as they face the same restrictive family and skill selection criteria as other immigrants.
The result is large, unskilled workforce with heavily restricted rights and which costs the federal and state governments very little.
Among the more disturbing impacts of the changes is the situation of women fleeing domestic violence and children and adolescents who are forced to leave abusive home situations.
According to the Department of Community Service documents, most are forced to seek help from charity shelters but many are unable to help, as they require the women to be on government income payments to assist with the costs of their stay.
“New Zealand women who are non protected SCV holders escaping domestic violence are often left with very limited support because of their ineligibility for social security payments,” noted one report.
Children born to New Zealand parents are eligible for citizenship once they turn 10, but children born in New Zealand who are brought here by their parents have no such guarantee. Accessing benefits and tertiary education is difficult.
According to the Department of Community Services: “This becomes a problem if the child or young adult becomes from the family unit and requires assistance such as Youth Allowance”.
In a submission to the 2011 Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into social services the NSW Welfare Centre described how in one case a teenager who had grown up in Australia was denied basic welfare assistance after fleeing a violent home situation. The reason was because he had been born in New Zealand and was ineligible for most forms of government assistance. He was further advised that there was little likelihood of him meeting any of the criteria for other visas or eventual residency due to his lack of qualifications.
New Zealand children on non-protected visas have also been locked out of HECS support for tertiary education through university or TAFE since 2008, effectively preventing them from acquiring the skills needed to qualify for full Australian citizenship.
As one signatory of the petition for better treatment for New Zealanders wrote: “I have a degree, work full-time, pay my taxes, and have been here 4 years with my family but I am thinking about moving back to NZ as we cannot get permanent residency or citizenship and my children therefore cannot get HECS loans to study at University here even though they have completed most of their schooling here”.
The Productivity Commission recommended alleviating the problem by increasing the opportunity for New Zealander residents to obtain citizenship more easily, something also suggested in the Community Service Department documents.
However three months on from the release of the Productivity Commission’s study it seems unlikely any change is about to occur.
Last month the continuing lack of political interest in resolving the problem was on display when Prime Minister Julia Gillard sidestepped the issue in a meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. Their preferred topic of negotiation was bitterly ironic: a deal by which New Zealand will take 150 asylum seekers off our hands annually.
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