Facing a future as Australia's poor relations

23:00, Jan 17 2013
coolies stand
Like coolies of the past, many New Zealanders work in Australia with few rights.

We have become Australia's coolies.

Openly discriminated against by state and federal authorities, New Zealanders and their children are officially denied the same social and political rights as their Australian neighbours and workmates.

Nearly half a million Kiwis living in Australia are subjected to taxation without representation - the same injustice against which Americans rose in revolt in 1776.

But so downtrodden and spiritless have we become that every year, more than 40,000 of us voluntarily submit to the sort of racist restrictions our government imposed on Chinese immigrants 130 years ago.

Why are so many New Zealanders willing to endure such naked discrimination? And why has our government been so abject, so supine, so utterly useless at defending their rights?

The answers have much to do with the relative strength of the New Zealand and Australian economies.


Overwhelmingly, those boarding the planes for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth are economic migrants.

Australian wages are between 30 and 50 per cent higher than those for similar work in New Zealand - in some trades and professions, twice as high. For scores of thousands of under- employed and under-paid Kiwis, the lure of a decent pay packet is simply irresistible.

But economics is not the whole explanation for the huge numbers emigrating to Australia.

People do not abandon their homelands lightly.

To leave behind family, friends, colleagues and all the familiar and reassuring geography of hearth and home, one must be driven by factors of equal or even greater emotional force.

Fear, shame, resentment, greed and lust will drive people across borders; but so too will the conviction that their homeland is not only unable to offer them and their loved ones a life worth living but also that, really, it doesn't care.

The creation of such a deadly malaise is never attributable solely to the failings of those in authority.

Our rulers remain in place because we are content to leave them there.

So, while governments may be the immediate cause of the deep disillusionment that drives citizens from their shores, there must also be a significant portion of the population which is, if not gratified, then at least untroubled by their departure.

In New Zealand's case, the culprits are not hard to find.

One has only to identify the class of citizens who have gained the most from the economic and social settings driving so many of their compatriots across the Tasman.

Overwhelmingly, it is the employing class which is most untroubled - even gratified - by the level of emigration.

Changes to employment law dating back to 1991 began the uncoupling of New Zealand and Australian wage rates.

The steady reduction of the social wage paid to New Zealanders in the form of state- funded health, education and housing services, which had begun 10 years earlier with tax and spending cuts, was thus rendered even more destructive.

Other economic "reforms" led to the wholesale de-industrialisation of New Zealand and a dramatic rise in structural unemployment.

The social and political consequences of these changes were devastating, but without the safety valve of emigration to Australia, they would also have been unsustainable.

Had Kiwis not been able to escape across the ditch, unemployment levels in New Zealand would have generated an electoral backlash of sufficient force to undo the neoliberal "reforms", from which employers have gained so much economic, social and political power.

But with neither of the major political parties willing to incur the wrath of the employing class (just a little of whose power the Helen Clark-led Labour-Alliance Government experienced in the "winter of discontent" of 2000), the changes required to convince New Zealanders that their government was indeed committed to helping them make a better life for themselves were never introduced.

And so the exodus continues. To paraphrase King Richard II's contemptuous response to the defeated remnants of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, "Coolies we are and coolies we shall remain" - until such time as we find the courage to build again a nation worth loving and not leaving.

Taranaki Daily News