Kiwis returning from Australia

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 15:22 22/06/2014

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This was great political theatre. Ahead of the 2008 election, John Key stood in an empty stadium in Wellington and made a promise that is now in danger of coming true.

Every empty seat represented one of the 40,000 or so New Zealanders who disappeared overseas every year, mostly to Australia. Key wanted to turn that so-called brain drain around. In an effective campaign slogan, that meant "wave goodbye to higher taxes, not your loved ones".

Six years later, you may still be paying higher taxes but the missing New Zealanders seem to be returning in droves, especially from Australia.

Nationally, we still lose more people to Australia than we gain, but the number is steadily declining. In the year to April 2014, 32,600 people went that way but 21,500 came back the other way.

That loss of 11,100 is much smaller than the loss of 34,100 the previous year and the loss of 200 to Australia in April is the lowest monthly figure since at least 1996. Statisticians expect that New Zealand will finally start to gain from Australia this year.

But Christchurch is already gaining, and has been since late 2013, following a period of peak departures in 2011. Roughly two- thirds of them will be New Zealanders coming home.

Every story of a Kiwi coming back is individual but there are similarities, trends and tendencies.

Kirsty Tovey and her family are returning to Christchurch in September. They have taken a very circuitous route home.

As Tovey explains, they left Christchurch seven years ago for Alexandra. They wanted to shift back but the earthquakes hit and that "unfortunately made Christchurch a no-go zone".

With rental prices sky- rocketing, they couldn't afford to return. Instead they went to Australia with "plans of making a lot of money before returning to Christchurch in the future". They settled on the Gold Coast in January 2013, but "let's just say we haven't made our millions".

Tovey says that if they had known how much tougher it became for New Zealanders in Australia after the "ridiculous" law changes of 2001 they may have just stayed in Alexandra. Her husband, Stuart, is English and it is even harder for him.

For example, they have girls aged 8 and 5 and a boy aged just 8 months. The boy is the only one born in Australia, "but he is not allowed to be an Australian citizen unless he lives here for 10 years".

The kids could go all the way through the Australian schooling system and will still not qualify for student loans. The recent budget would have the family paying $6 every time one of the kids sees a doctor.

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"Stu and I have no safety net if things go belly up," Tovey says. "We never moved here with the intention of sponging off benefits but it would be nice to know if Stu was made redundant or was ill and unable to work we could get some financial assistance.

"My husband pays taxes to the Australian government like everyone else but they are even quicker to ensure he wouldn't receive anything back if he needed it."

Suddenly the so-called lucky country looks a little cruel and discriminatory. In 2001 "the [John] Howard government amended the definition of 'Australian resident' in social security laws in such a way as to specifically exclude New Zealanders", as Australian researcher Peter Mares writes.

Mares is interested in the unfairness of those laws and the lasting myths of Kiwis as "Bondi bludgers" promoted in some media. He noted that, at September 2013, nearly 200,000 of the 648,200 New Zealanders living in Australia on special category visas are subject to the restrictions imposed by Howard's government.

Most of the New Zealanders Tovey has met in Australia arrived before 2001 and are unaffected by the law changes.

"Personally I wouldn't recommend that Kiwis with a young family move here. We don't regret our time living here - let's face it, the weather is fabulous - but we are more excited about the prospect of being back home."

Despite trends, people leave and return for complex reasons, says University of Canterbury researcher Rosemary Baird, who specialises in New Zealand- Australia migration issues.

"A New Zealand family in Australia may be thinking that they miss their New Zealand family, or that they'd like their kids to grow up in New Zealand, and when they start hearing via media that there are options and possibilities in New Zealand, and that things may get tighter in Australia this helps them make the decision."

In Baird's view, financial incentives are not the only or even the major reason that people return but they can provide the context and cement decision- making. For example, the contrasting New Zealand and Australian budgets which appeared within days of each other. One was mildly generous and the other was more austere.

"My thought would be that if Australia's economy continues to falter and New Zealand's to perform well then more New Zealanders will think about returning home," Baird says.

Nationally, the tide began to turn in September 2012. The conventional wisdom is that the Australian economy is starting to tank and the New Zealand economy is improving, but even Finance Minister Bill English disputes that.

English told the Australian newspaper just last month that "we're still trying to understand what's going on with the big slowdown in New Zealanders leaving". His personal view is that "the Australian economy is in better shape than Australians think".

It wasn't the economy that brought Christchurch nurse Emma Cowan back. She returned less than a month ago after nearly eight years in Melbourne. The Australian system offered rapid professional advancement and specialty placement straight after she graduated.

Her main reasons for coming back are family and lifestyle options. Short drives to the great outdoors versus big city hassles of planning and parking. But she is also conscious of the unfairness faced by many Kiwis in Australia.

"Long term, it's harder because you don't get any of the benefits over there," Cowan says. "Sickness benefits and so on - I was not eligible for any of that. If I was to be off work for long periods of time, I would go without an income."

Cowan came straight back into a job but finding somewhere to live is the harder part of the new Christchurch equation.

The statistics tell you that Canterbury's population is now growing faster than the national average, second only to Auckland, after periods of decline.

"We have record levels of net migration coming into the city," says Canterbury Development Corporation (CDC) chief executive Tom Hooper. "That's two things. We have more people coming in. And we have less people leaving. Which is a fact of the rebuild and the work opportunities here.

"It's important that the rest of the country understands that Christchurch's population is growing, and growing relatively robustly, and the greater Christchurch population is now back to and ahead of pre-earthquake levels."

If you were looking for symbols of the rebuild in mid-2014, the CDC's offices on Cashel St could provide a picture. Before the earthquakes, this was a Sony showroom. Now the Quake City exhibition is downstairs, memorialising the disaster. Upstairs, the CDC provides economic advice to its owner, the Christchurch City Council, and thinks about the future.

All around it, there are the wastelands that precede vast new commercial building projects. The temporary container shops have been moved. A lot is happening but it looks like nothing.

In a meeting room overlooking deserted Cashel St, Hooper goes through it. One of the CDC economists has provided him and The Press with detailed data. There were 343 migrants from Australia to Christchurch in the first quarter of 2012, compared to 593 in the first quarter of 2014, for instance. Other statistics tell similar stories.

The Christchurch dimension is driven by the rebuild. Unemployment here sits at just 3.3 per cent.

"You might be looking for a job in Australia and see limited opportunity there given their economic situation whereas you look across at New Zealand, in particular Auckland and Christchurch, and see a lot of opportunity," Hooper says. "There is a mining sector downturn in Australia. Some of those skills are clearly transferable to the rebuild."

But the rebuild is how long? Ten years? That could make these short-term moves.

"What's short term?" Hooper asks. "The average length of stay in one job across the country is something like three years. Ten years is a long time in terms of employment. If people come for the rebuild and they are here for 10 years and they bring their family and their children start school here, then they're tied to the region.

"The key question is whether the underlying economy has opportunity to keep them here when the rebuild finishes."

Construction has swelled and will shrink again. That's the rebuild trend. The other trend Hooper wants to talk about is information and computer technology (ICT) workers. That growth is in Auckland and Christchurch. Some are New Zealanders coming home and some are foreign workers. Either way, they are in huge demand.

That sector was growing prior to 2011 and the earthquakes haven't affected it. News about Vodafone's part in an innovation precinct can only help: "Just the idea that there's an ICT-focused innovation area where firms can come and people can be employed is absolutely a plus for the city."

Hooper might sound like he is in the good news business. Partly this is his job but there is also the fact that, around migration figures at least, dire predictions made after the earthquakes have not come to pass.

The urban myth that everyone fled Christchurch in 2011 was "temporarily true" but did not hold up. The expected booms in places like Dunedin, Nelson and Timaru never happened.

The flipside of the story is obvious, as Emma Cowan knows. Houses are not being built fast enough to accommodate growth. Rents are expected to hit Auckland levels by January 2015. Migration is only one cause but it still contributes.

Hooper is on the record as being sceptical about the need to build as many new houses as others say we need. We may have one more year of people being out of their homes for repairs and needing rentals. The rebuild workforce will need somewhere to stay for longer than that but "there's a risk that if the recovery is not successful, if we don't have population growth, that we might overbuild".

This will be a balancing act. And there are others. Some big decisions were made when population predictions were less enthusiastic.

The school renewals programme that closed some Christchurch schools was based on population figures gathered within a year of the 2011 earthquake. Since then, government projections have the Christchurch residential population reaching 474,900 by 2016, an increase of 20,200 or 4.4 per cent on June 2012 estimates.

Some believe that the Ministry of Education should have waited until at least the 2013 census before making big decisions based on population changes. Hooper doesn't think that criticism is fair, and believes you couldn't have held up plans to fix schools, roads and hospitals, but "it will be interesting to see how the population demographics continue to change, going forward".

Indeed. A migration story is always about potential and predictions, a belief that good times are imminent. The big year of the rebuild will now be 2016 to 2017, Hooper says, citing the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera). By then the rebuild economy will peak at 8 to 10 per cent of the total Christchurch economy. At the moment it is just 4 per cent.

That doesn't sound like much given that we keep hearing that the rebuild is not just the big story of the Christchurch economy but an important part of national growth.

"The roughly 7 per cent growth that Christchurch had over the last 12 months, a lot of that is attributable to rebuild activity," Hooper says. "The rebuild is temporary and will be very important to the future of the city but the key in the long term is our underlying economy."

At the moment Christchurch is almost all potential, a city waiting for its future. Paradoxically, it is this unfinished state that could be luring Kiwis back.

"We want to return to Christchurch to be a part of its future," Kirsty Tovey says from Australia. "We want to watch it grow into being one of the most modern, exciting cities in the world, offering fantastic future opportunities for us and our children.

"While we will always grieve for the old Christchurch, for the loss of life and the loss of history, it is now time to create something even bigger and better."

- The Press

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