Kiwis should get used to being Australia's "guest workers" for the foreseeable future, Prime Minister John Key said after the conclusion of his annual bilateral talks with his Australian counterpart.
Key said he would be "staggered" if the Australian government reversed its 2001 welfare changes any time soon.
The plight of Kiwis across the Tasman has become a perennial issue for Key, who raised it again in his talks with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Sydney last week.
But Abbot made it clear Kiwis enjoying the freedom to live and work across the Tasman would not be allowed to become welfare recipients. Questioned over the fairness of Kiwis paying taxes across the ditch without any of the benefits, Abbott said they were lucky to be given access to a life in Australia.
"But knowing just how industrious our brothers and sisters across the Tasman are when they come to Australia I expect them, in (former prime minister) Bob Menzies' immortal phrase, to be lifters, not leaners," Abbott said.
Key told the Sunday Star-Times Abbott was under too much pressure domestically to balance the books for Kiwis to expect him to bend on the welfare rules.
"In the end this guy is staring down the barrel of a $47 billion deficit; I know what it's like because we've been there for a long period of time. Anything that vaguely looks like a nice-to-have is for another day and everything we want is a nice-to-have."
Abbott's cabinet was currently preparing for a tough budget and that put even more pressure on him.
"You can imagine if they made any trims or cuts there, if just couple of weeks earlier it looked like they were extending welfare support to a group of Kiwis - how's that going to reconcile?"
Labour has accused the Government of not talking tough enough but Key said it was Labour that agreed to the 2001 rule changes in the first place.
"In terms of a reversal of that 2001 decision . . . a blanket reversal, I'd be staggered if that happened any time soon. It would make no difference who the government in New Zealand was."
But he believed that they would take some of the sharp edges off the policy for humanitarian reasons over time.
That had already been shown during events like the Queensland floods or bushfires, when Kiwis were initially refused government support, but were given help after the New Zealand government lobbied on their behalf.
"I just don't know whether it's sustainable long term for Australia to have what is essentially, for want of a better term, 200,000 guest workers."
Key's trip to Australia underscored the success of his Government in knocking the books back into shape after years of belt tightening - earning Key accolades from Abbott as an inspiration and a mentor.
For the first time in years, the grass could be greener on this side of the Tasman for many Kiwis - but Key said it was not that simple.
"I think the reality is you're talking about people who made Australia their home. They've been there a very long time. It's very difficult for them to up sticks and move . . . in a technical sense it's simple.
"But in a real world where people have to sell homes, make new friends, enrol their kids at school, it's a big exercise; their whole eco system is in Australia."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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