The grass isn't greener across the Ditch

01:43, Jan 31 2009
Elinore Wellwood with Loti (3) and Elsa.

Australia lives up to its image in many ways.

Kiwi migrants to Melbourne, for example, can read the newspaper as though it's a novel, its fanciful descriptions of gang wars and restaurant assassinations, corrupt police passing names of police informers to gangland contacts, who call in the hitmen.

Even as you shrug off the language differences as background noise thongs for jandals, doona for duvet, a child's fluffy is a babycino, you will smile at the Italian grandmothers who stop polishing their iron railings to run a wrinkled hand under a three-year-old's chin and thrust a gold coin into the mother's hand. "She is beautiful. Buy her something with this."

At the large neighbourhoods of those who still regard themselves as Italians and Greeks even though their grandparents left those cultures behind when they were barely out of their teens.

So, at Easter, the local baker sells specialties like melomakarona (walnut cookies drenched in syrup) and kourabiethes (moonshaped almond shortbreads covered in icing sugar). And all year round, locals go to the brilliant tapas bars in the alleys which produce their own top-selling cookbooks, and the farmers' markets sell beef you can trust the rural folk have known it since it was a calf.

These are reasons to move to Melbourne, to Australia. The food, the warmer weather, the broader multiculturalism.

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Just don't expect it to be cheap.

Despite salaries reported to be 25 per cent higher on average, middle-income professionals won't earn that much more than in New Zealand in the same job, says Kiwi lawyer Jo Davidson. She's been Tasman-hopping moving to Melbourne, then back to Wellington, before returning last year to Australia to a dream job.

She loves the gourmet food in and around the city. And for her, the weather is a relief. The summer in Melbourne is warm, the seasons actually change, it's always dawning fine and even when it rains, it's gentle.

She didn't return for the money, though. "I felt significantly better off when I moved back from Melbourne to New Zealand. As a single woman [in Australia] I would never have contemplated buying a house. I went back to New Zealand and within six months bought my own home."

Food, she says, is also much more expensive in Australia. Everyday items such as milk and bread will cost you more. Woolworths' chief executive even admitted to a national inquiry that the company charges shoppers more in Australia than in New Zealand.

"And the quality at supermarkets is appalling. I used to be able to go to New World in Wellington and buy every single thing I wanted, and it was delicatessen standard."

Even if your pay packet is larger, the money quickly disappears. Teacher Mike Arthur, who recently moved from Wellington, says he earns about $4000 more than in New Zealand. "But the higher cost of living here eats that up."

Houses and cars are the big unaffordables. Advertised prices do not include tens of thousands of dollars in stamp duty when buying a house or vehicle. "Our car was far more expensive here, and then we had to pay stamp duty on it, plus about $700 to register it," says Arthur.

Some things cost less. Furniture because of superstores like Ikea and electricity (80 per cent generated from coal, the green-minded should note) are far cheaper, he says.

Presuming you don't earn less than $A25,000 ($31,100) taxes are not too different from New Zealand - about $2500 less in Australia on average but 9 per cent of wages is taken for compulsory superannuation, a figure hidden in the salary packages that lure unsuspecting Kiwis across the Tasman (salary "packaging" to cut your tax burden is big business). Tough if you wanted to pay off the mortgage first.

That's if you can afford to buy. To live within 4km of Melbourne's centre, expect to pay well over $600,000 for a house. The house will be semi-detached, unrenovated, have a tiny courtyard and probably be next to a big highway.

If you can't afford to buy, finding lower-end rental accommodation may be difficult, with an inner-city rental crisis in Melbourne. Chris and Carly, who just moved over from New Zealand, told the Age newspaper they had "been to four inspections in four days. The perception from home is that there are plenty of places to rent, but when you get to a place, 30 people turn up".

Renters are being forced to offer more rent to beat the competition, or pay eight weeks in advance instead of four.

If you are going to go, do it when you don't have kids. Mother-of-one Jocelyn Prasad, who moved to Sydney last year from Auckland, says life in Australia seems harder for families. "If you're single, there's a lot more opportunity. I think the higher cost of living really kicks in when you bring a family here."

She's also found that private schools are not just a luxury for the privileged. Kiwis who would never dream of using anything but the local high school at home, scrimp and save to avoid the Australian government school system and put their child through private education.

Education experts such as Richard James, director of Melbourne University's Centre for the Study of Higher Education, says the middle class here has lost confidence in government schools and moved its children to private schools, blaming funding cuts and closures under the previous state government.

In Victoria, last year, only 58 per cent of Year 12 students went to state government schools (which often lack sports fields and language options). Private school fees are often higher than in New Zealand.

It pays to go private. Seven out of 10 Melbourne University students were recruited from private or academically selective government schools, according to an Age survey of 2006 Year 12 students.

And the quality education quest starts early. In parts of Melbourne, even to get on a kindergarten waiting list you have to pay $A100 ($125). School waiting list fees can top $800. And forget picturing your kids growing up running under the sprinkler. Thanks to water restrictions, the grass definitely won't be greener for them.

New Zealanders moving to Australia should not expect a vastly better public health system for themselves or their children.

Children don't get free health care. To take a three-year-old to a GP in some parts of Melbourne, it can cost more than $80 upfront, with medicine extra. The health system means the government sends a $41 rebate cheque some weeks later.

Newspaper stories tell of ambulances having to wait 90 minutes to drop patients off at hospitals because of the lack of beds, and women miscarrying in the hospital toilet as they wait to be seen in the emergency department.

In the second half of last year, around 85,000 people waited in emergency departments without treatment for four hours, and 45,000 failed to be admitted to hospitals within eight hours, says the most recent "Your Hospitals" report.

And it's likely to get worse.

Families earning more than $A100,000 or singles earning over $A50,000 have to pay an extra levy to the government (around 1 per cent of their taxable income on top of the standard 1.5 per cent levy) if they don't have private health insurance. This amounts to at least $50 a week for a small family.

And the new federal government is planning to increase the income threshold, meaning an estimated two million Australians will no longer pay for private insurance and will switch to public hospitals.

Premiums are predicted to go up, and older people the biggest users will in turn drop their health insurance as they become unable to afford the premiums. Currently, the private system carries out 56 per cent of elective surgery, including 60 per cent of major joint surgery which has one of the longest waiting lists in the public sector.

Meanwhile, Australia's economy faces all the same pressures as New Zealand's. For the first time since 2000, households and businesses hit by the highest borrowing costs in 12 years have cut spending.

Petrol costs are still rising. Interest rates are predicted to keep rising as the central bank tries to rein in inflation pushed up by booming iron and coal prices and planned tax cuts.

Rate rises are biting. In parts of Sydney, up to 7 per cent of indebted households are now behind in their mortgage payments. And council rates, as in New Zealand, are on the increase, Melbourne homeowners reportedly facing a 6.5 per cent rise next year.

In Melbourne, the housing market has slowed, which is bad for sellers but good for prospective buyers. Housing finance to owner-occupiers has fallen by 4.9 per cent. Most prices are flat or falling. In a city where most homes were sold at auction, clearance rates have plummeted.

Those still thinking of making the move should note that the jobs market is predicted to soften considerably. Last week's GDP figures, although stronger than expected, have confirmed fears that Australia's economy has entered a slowdown.

Growth slowed from 4.3 per cent to 3.6 per cent. A survey of 800 business executives last week found 20 per cent expected to have fewer employees in the coming quarter, and the number of job ads is falling.

New Zealanders toasting the fact they're still at home could pour a Victoria Bitter, Australia's number one beer. A six-pack is more than $5 cheaper in New Zealand.

 COMPARE AND CONTRAST

(All figures NZ dollars unless indicated)

Take-home pay: on $80,000: you pay taxes of $22,470 in NZ; $20,332 in Australia. Your wages are also docked 9 per cent super, which you get back when you retire $7200 a year. Effectively, $27,532 is taken from your pay packet. On $120,000: $38,070 in NZ; $36,920 in Australia. And private health insurance $2485 in NZ; $2040 in Australia and 9 per cent super $10,800. Effectively, $50,205 is taken from your pay packet.

Medicare levy: Resident taxpayers pay 1.5 per cent of their taxable income to fund it. Those earning more than $100,000, or singles on $50,000-plus, pay an additional surcharge of 1 per cent if they do not have private health insurance. Doctors' fees for children: in New Zealand, up to $15; in Australia, $A84 upfront, $41 after a rebate.

Buying a house: Stamp duty is a general tax imposed on certain title transfers, including homes and cars, and varies from state to state. The buyer usually pays. The money is used to fund education, health, law and order, and public safety. On a $687,000 ($A550,000) purchase, you pay more than $37,500 in all sorts of taxes, fees and charges, about $31,000 ($A25,000) in stamp duty, then $1704 ($A1400) as a mortgage tax, and $4874 ($A4000) insurance and fees. ANZ variable mortgage rate in NZ 10.95 per cent; in Australia 9.47 per cent.

Renting: With an inner-city rental crisis in Melbourne, vacancy rates within 4km of the city centre have dropped to 0.3 per cent - three empty rental properties for every 1000. To rent a reasonable three-bedroom apartment near the sea: in New Zealand $600; in Australia $974.90 ($A800).

Car prices: 1995 Toyota Corolla, 150,000-190,000km in Australia $9626 ($A7900) plus $246 stamp duty; in NZ $3900. Vehicle stamp duty in Victoria is $5 per $200 on a car worth up to $57,009, and $10 per $200 on more expensive cars; not applicable in NZ. Annual registration fee for a light vehicle in Victoria $575; New Zealand $183. Petrol per litre, central Melbourne $2.12 ($A1.70); in central Auckland $2.12.

Education: Private school fees in Australia $21,661 ($A17,775) at Methodist Ladies College; in NZ $15,075 at Diocesan School for Girls. Daycare and kindergarten have non-refundable waiting list fees (place not guaranteed) in Australia of $125 per site; not applicable in New Zealand.

Having a baby: Free in New Zealand, midwife assigned, free GP visits, private rooms available to all at about $250 a night. Free in Australia, mother has to visit the hospital or a combination of a GP and hospital. Extra GP visits at normal price. Scans about $100 each. Only public rooms available, with average of three mothers per room. No single health care professional assigned. Private care with health insurance usually costs around $4874 ($A4000), extra for costs above private insurance cover. Maternity payments, in New Zealand, 14 weeks at $391.28 = $5477; in Australia, a lump sum of $5189 ($A4258).

Eating and drinking: 2 litre housebrand milk in New Zealand $3.06, in Australia $3.38. Molenberg Energy Plus bread in NZ $3.99, in Australia $4.93. Victoria Bitter six-pack in NZ $10.65; in Australia $15.83 ($A12.99).

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