OPINION: Kiwi layabouts are flooding into Australia, according to a couple of populist Aussie newspapers.
The Kiwi bludger is a popular stereotype, always good for a run in the silly season. This time around there is an unpleasant racist tinge to the horror stories.
Let's not be too self-righteous about this. Immigration is a sensitive subject in every country, and is a magnet for demagoguery.
Winston Peters has made political hay with ''Asian immigrants'' for years.
The National's Party's anti-immigrant 1975 election campaign is another infamous example.
Kiwis scapegoat foreigners just as Aussies do.
In this case the row arises because the Australian economy is having trouble and unemployment is rising. The Kiwi bludger becomes a convenient political scapegoat.
Wiser observers scotch the myth about the hordes of Kiwi bludgers.
In fact, unemployment among New Zealanders living in Australia is about the same as that for Australians, and their participation rate in the economy is notably higher.
What's more, they don't get the dole or a number of other social welfare benefits, so the idea that they are a spectacular drain on the exchequer is wrong.
What is needed here is hard facts and cool heads.
A joint study last year by the productivity commissions of Australia and New Zealand found that the education levels of New Zealand immigrants to Australia was about the same as that of Australians, although slightly below that of other immigrants to that country.
Kiwis who go to Australia are not all brain surgeons, but they are not all unskilled layabouts either.
The real reason New Zealanders keep going to Australia - although the tide has slowed in recent times as the Australian economy has cooled - is economic opportunity.
The study showed Kiwi immigrants earn between 20 and 25 per cent more in Australia than in New Zealand.So they continue to go even though they face unfair restrictions on access to benefits and citizenship rights.
Australian immigrants to New Zealand do not face such unfair restrictions, but then neither do they harvest such economic benefits.
The result is a lopsided flow, with more than 500,000 Kiwis in Australia, but only about 65,000 Aussies on this side of the Tasman.
The deal over benefits was signed in 2001 by then-prime minister Helen Clark.
She said then: ''Australia estimates that it pays more than NZ$1.1 billion in social security to New Zealand citizens living in Australia.
There is a vast difference between that and the NZ$170 million which we currently reimburse Australia for.
''She also pointed out that ''our spending priorities must be to attend to the needs of New Zealanders who continue to live here in New Zealand.''It is hard to argue with this.
Kiwis get a raw deal in Australia from the government, but they get greater economic opportunities by moving there.
That will continue till a New Zealand government succeeds in narrowing the income gap with Australia.
Nobody expects that to happen any time soon.
- © Fairfax NZ News