Australia's unemployment rate, at 6.8 per cent, is now higher than New Zealand's (6.4 per cent) and there is increasing concern about the lack of social benefits Kiwis get across the Tasman in hard times. Australia has been the lucky country for New Zealanders looking for a better pay packet, but is the tide turning? Jazial Crossley reports.
Many Kiwis think the grass is greener in Australia. Despite a lack of social benefits for New Zealanders there, plenty see it as Plan B. If times are tough here, we can always hop across the Ditch to find work where, historically, jobs have been plentiful and pay rates higher.
But now the Reserve Bank of Australia has revised down economic growth forecasts, mining investment is expected to decline and unemployment is outpacing New Zealand's, leaving many expats wondering if they would be better off back home than in the so-called "lucky country".
According to Statistics New Zealand, the number of New Zealanders moving to Australia has been falling since December. In the past year, about 42,000 Kiwis left for Australia and 11,000 others came back.
My father headed over: at 21, after studying psychiatric nursing, he moved from Auckland to Sydney and met Kiwis there who became lifelong friends. When they began starting families, the whole group eventually moved home to New Zealand so their kids could grow up near grandparents, having summer holidays together at Coromandel.
In early 2008, I followed in his footsteps because it was hard to move up in my chosen field, writing, with many older, experienced people competing for a limited number of roles.
Within six weeks of moving to Sydney, I was being paid double the per-word rate freelancers receive in New Zealand. In my early 20s, and without debts or dependants, the lack of social benefits in Australia was not a worry.
Law changes that John Howard's government pushed through in 2001 made Kiwis ineligible for most housing, healthcare and unemployment benefits, even though they could continue to live and work there indefinitely. Kids born to Kiwi parents in Australia become citizens only if they live there until their 10th birthday. If they're born with disabilities, their parents don't receive state support for the necessary care.
To become citizens of Australia, New Zealanders need first to apply for permanent residency, which is awarded based on skill levels, health and age. Most don't bother with the paperwork because they already have a right to work and live in Australia.
Most Kiwis know several people who made the move but, with employment opportunities drying up in Australia, the perception of it being a better and brighter place to work is changing.
Oz Kiwi is an association that campaigns on behalf of New Zealanders living and working in Australia in the hope of winning them access to more government services.
Spokesman Tim Gassin, who lives in Victoria, says the job market has slowed. He had heard of New Zealanders who couldn't find work in Australia, exhausting their savings and having to move back because they couldn't get welfare.
"We keep hearing reports of people having to go back and seeking social security in New Zealand even though they had been paying taxes in Australia."
Stan Chessman, 56, moved to Queensland in 2005. He had a business training labourers to operate machinery, but recent cuts to government funding for education slashed a third of his training company's revenue, so he is moving home to Taranaki in two weeks, where he will be closer to his eight grandchildren.
"Work is a lot quieter than it used to be. There are a lot of Kiwis going back home," Chessman says.
Accountant Juliette, who did not want to use her full name, recently moved home to Auckland after four months searching for work in Perth. She applied for more than 80 positions but never got past an initial interview. Within three weeks of being back in New Zealand, she had been offered three jobs. She would not recommend anyone move to Australia without employment already lined up.
"The job market [in Perth] is stagnant. I know of an employment consultant made redundant and others forced to take outstanding leave. I did arrive one week before the announcement of the election so it was bad timing because the economy was frozen. However, there appears to be nothing happening in Perth to instigate any upswing."
Experts are similarly pessimistic about the state of Australia's economy. Infometrics yesterday released a report entitled "Australia's Allure Well Gone", where it stated job opportunities in Australia were drying up while New Zealand's market picked up, with increased demand for labour in Christchurch.
"Although the Reserve Bank of Australia has responded vigorously to the mining-related slowdown in Australia, it will take time for lower interest rates to stabilise the Australian labour market," the report says.
Kiwi professional Scott, 48, has been contracting in Sydney for five years. Currently between assignments, he is living on savings because he is ineligible for government assistance. He says it does not seem fair that Australians moving to New Zealand are eligible for the dole after only two years.
He still feels better off than in New Zealand. "If you want to live here, you've got to work.
"For years in Auckland I felt like I was hustling for every piece of work, and it could be a long time between really good contracts, but in Sydney I have found those opportunities. The pay scales are better, the project budgets are bigger, and project work that goes for many months is more abundant."
Graphic designer Carly Olive found work within two weeks of moving to Melbourne from Auckland in 2011, but failed to find a job in Adelaide when she tried to relocate earlier this year.
"Apparently, for every design job advertised in Adelaide - and there are only a few each week - there are around 100 applicants, even for the part- time positions. It really does depend on where people move to in Australia."
The higher wages in Melbourne give Olive, 27, financial security she didn't have in New Zealand. "I now have disposable income, meaning I can enjoy travel, pursue my hobbies and save without going on a soup diet!"
New Zealander Beatrix Coles was "pretty horrified" to find out about the lack of social welfare benefits after she moved to Melbourne. Working as a consultant to the film and television industry, she earns more than she would in New Zealand and thinks there are more opportunities in Australia.
"After all of the hassle of living on a visa in the UK, getting into Australia was such a breeze. I never planned to stay long term, and when I realised I was hanging round, it was a shock to discover the terms of the Special Category Visa . . . the lack of ability to vote makes me very cross."
If entitlement to benefits does not change in Australia, will we see a flood of New Zealanders returning?
Oz Kiwi's Gassin says the next few years will be "worrying".
"Since the changes in 2001, the economy had been growing, so it was a problem for only a small number of people. Now the economy here seems to be slowing. If we get to a situation where a lot more people are losing their jobs, that's going to hit New Zealanders very much disproportionately." Fairfax NZ
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