NZ willing to take on Aussie boat-people

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 09/02/2013

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New Zealand may come to Australia's aid with an offer take in some of its asylum seekers.

Prime Minister John Key hinted at the offer ahead of a day-long meeting with his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard today - and said New Zealand had been discussing with Australia a "regional solution" for boat people arrivals.

Both Mr Key and his office refused to confirm speculation that the offer would equate to about 75 places out of New Zealand's annual refugee quota of 750 people a year.

But a source confirmed an offer was on the table.

Mr Key said there had been ongoing discussions with Australia.

"We're conscious of the view that a regional solution will be found.

"I see the issue as an Australasian issue and, as a regional issue and from New Zealand's point of view, I stand by my publicly stated comments in the past that it's my view that a boat will at some point turn up in New Zealand.

"I think it's a matter of time. We work very closely with the Australians and they provide a lot of support for New Zealand.

"So in that regard we are looking to work with Australia."

If it proceeds, the deal would echo a similar one struck by former prime minister Helen Clark to help out her Australian counterpart John Howard over the 2001 Tampa crisis, when he refused to allow a container ship carrying more than 400 refugees to land.

The asylum-seeker issue has also been a hot political potato for Ms Gillard, who has revived controversial overseas processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island in northern Papua New Guinea.

But any offer to help out Australia might be controversial on this side of the Tasman - especially after Ms Gillard insisted yesterday there was no need to change Australia's laws refusing Kiwis the same access to benefits and entitlements that Australians enjoy on this side of the Tasman.

The issue has been a thorn in the relationship since the Howard government changed the rules in the early 2000s in response to a surge in New Zealand immigration across the ditch, sparked by better pay and conditions.

But it has failed to stem the exodus and more than 400,000 Kiwis now reside across the Tasman - many of them referred to recently in an Australian report as second-class citizens because of their inability to access welfare entitlements.

Documents obtained this week show Australian officials have been working on a plan to give residency for Kiwis across the Tasman after 10 years.

But our Government has little expectation of change during an Australian election year.

Ms Gillard said yesterday Kiwis got special treatment that "no other country in the world" received.

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"We have arrangements for New Zealanders that have a generosity associated with them not given to any other nationals from any other country. New Zealanders can come to Australia and access our labour market without restrictions. We don't confer that benefit on any other nation."

New Zealanders who lived in Australia were also entitled to a range of benefits including the baby bonus, Medicare and the family tax credit.

The New Zealand Government has repeatedly raised the issue with Australia and Mr Key said he would raise it again today but he did not expect any change in the short term.

Ms Gillard returns home tomorrow.

- Fairfax Media

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