Kiwis need Aussie citizenship, not welfare

Last updated 05:00 14/02/2013
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DOWN UNDER: Kiwis need citizenship, not a handout in Australia.

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For the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders living in Australia, the people who care about them, and anyone who believes in the importance of the relationship between the two nations, last weekend's prime ministerial meeting could only be described as a disappointment.

Yet again there was talk that the anomalous situation in which New Zealand citizens can live in Australia indefinitely, pay taxes, and contribute to the country, yet be denied access to social services or the ability even to apply for citizenship, might finally be resolved. However, hopes for change were again dashed.

The plight of New Zealanders in Australia gains much media attention in New Zealand and comparatively very little across the Tasman. What attention it gets in both countries almost inevitably focuses on access to welfare payments or other government services.  This is understandable as the effect of Australia's policies have been unconscionable. Too many people are having their lives marred by these policies to ignore them. When John Key and other New Zealand politicians talk about the position of Kiwis living across the ditch, they, like the media, also focus largely on welfare issues.

However, concentrating so much on welfare can obscure the reasons why New Zealanders move to Australia and what they hope to make of their lives there. Kiwis cross the ditch in search of opportunities, they go to further their careers or education, to play a part in a larger society, to join friends and family, and to contribute to causes about which they care. They go there to play a full and productive role in Australian society. They do not go to claim welfare cheques, even if they would like to have a safety net in case things turned sour.

Talking overwhelmingly about welfare is also counterproductive. When New Zealanders make demands for welfare, most Australians simply see non-citizens wanting a government handout. Most do not have an understanding of the anomalous position in which New Zealanders find themselves. On online articles about the issue there is comment after comment posted with exactly the same message - if you want welfare, become a citizen. Of course, under the current arrangements, this is not possible for most.

Given the hostility of the general public to giving welfare to non-citizens, it is no wonder that Australian politicians are not rushing to fix the issue. Doing so would be political poison, particularly at a time when governments are cutting spending on many services to try to bring their budgets back in to surplus.

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What is needed is a new approach. The issue has never really been about welfare, so much as the full rights of citizenship. Demanding the right to apply for citizenship rather than to receive government handouts would not only accord much better with the aspirations of New Zealanders to play a full part in their new society, but achieving such a right would see every other gripe of New Zealanders in Australia melt away. Achieving citizenship allows one to vote, to stand for parliament, to sit on juries, to receive government assistance in times of need, to receive student loans, and to work for the federal public service. It brings so much more than a welfare safety net.

New Zealanders could instead present themselves as hardworking migrants, who want to make a commitment to their new country and play a full part in its national life. This is what most New Zealanders in Australia are, but it becomes lost in the discussion of welfare.

Allowing New Zealanders to apply for Australian citizenship would be relatively easy. Australia need not change the welfare rules introduced in 2001, but it would have to reclassify New Zealanders as permanent residents for citizenship purposes, as they were until 2001. Such a move would mean all New Zealanders would face the same welfare restrictions as today on first arriving in Australia, but be able to become citizens after four years.

The Australian government may still hesitate in making such a change as it would bring added costs in allowing New Zealanders access to more government services. However, it is already happy to extend the right to apply for citizenship to all other legal residents. If it refuses, New Zealanders could seek to win public support with a new campaign, asking to swear allegiance to Australia is far more likely to succeed than asking for welfare money. 

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