Australia and New Zealand have a famously intimate relationship. Geographically and culturally close, our countries share a bond forged by the ANZACS who fought side-by-side on the twentieth century’s bloody battlefields.
But it’s a friendship that only goes so far. Many Australians would be surprised to learn that for many of the around 650,000 Kiwis living in this country, there is no safety net to catch them if they fall on hard times.
Joanne Cox, from advocacy group Oz Kiwi, says New Zealanders have seen the “incremental loss of rights through policy and legislative changes” since the Howard government stopped granting New Zealanders permanent residence upon arrival in 2001.
The rules around New Zealanders’ entitlements are complex.
Under Howard’s changes, New Zealanders who came to Australia before February 26, 2001 are permanent residents with ongoing access to social security and student loans. This cohort, known as protected Special Category visa holders, can apply to become citizens.
But those who arrived after February 27, 2001 are classified as non-protected Special Category Visa holders, which means they can live and work in Australia indefinitely but have none of the rights of permanent residents and no simple pathway to citizenship.
The rules around New Zealanders’ entitlements are complex. New Zealanders who have been in Australia for 10 years continuously are eligible for a one-off six-month entitlement to unemployment or sickness benefits or Youth Allowance. “If you use it for two months and don’t use the rest of it, you lose the rest of that entitlement,” says Cox.
Eligibility for the disability support pension is more stringent for Kiwis too. “Unlike an Australian citizen who might get the disability support pension for a chronic mental illness or a severe back issue that required surgery or a life-threatening condition such as cancer, a New Zealander won’t necessarily get that payment. Each case is assessed on its merits, but generally New Zealanders don’t get that unless they are terminally ill or incapacitated to the extent that they’ll never work again.”
Reciprocal agreements between the two countries mean New Zealanders living in Australia have access to some government payments, including aged and widow pensions and certain sickness and disability benefits, but “it’s not a vast safety net,” says Cox. “You still get homeless people with MS living in their cars.”
Blended families with Kiwi and Australian partners are particularly vulnerable to the changes implemented under Howard. “If the Australian becomes unwell, the New Zealander might become their full-time carer, but they’re not entitled to a carers payment – even though they are caring for an Australian citizen,” says Cox, who has an endless supply of anecdotes about New Zealanders who have suffered under the Australian rules.
She tells the story of a New Zealand woman whose husband had a terminal illness. As a non-protected Special Category visa holder, she was not entitled to a carer payment. “She had to put her husband into a rest home for care and continue to work two jobs while he died,” Cox says.
Often crowdfunding is the only option for Kiwis in crisis, like the man living in Australia who broke his back while surfing. “He had 18 months of rehab before he was able to leave hospital,” says Cox. “His aunt and his cousin, who were both nurses, took turns to come over and care for him, because none of those family and friends who were already here were entitled to anything to look after him. He wasn’t entitled to anything and he couldn’t travel because he was paralysed and still in rehab, so it was a very expensive exercise to put him on a plane.”
As a non-protected Special Category visa holder, she was not entitled to a carer payment. “She had to put her husband into a rest home for care and continue to work two jobs while he died,” Cox says.
One of the latest developments regarding Kiwi rights, says Cox, comes in the form of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which prompted the formation of Oz Kiwi in 2013. “New Zealanders are the only Australian taxpayers who have to pay the levy but can’t access the service unless they are a permanent resident or citizen,” says Cox. “Usually you’re excluded, but now we’re paying for something we can’t access, which is beyond wrong.”
As the NDIS rolls out across the country, ‘non-protected’ New Zealanders are losing access to essential services as provision switches from local providers to the NDIS.
“The eligibility criteria changes,” says Cox, who has met with families who have children with special needs in the Australian school system and have been told that support such as teacher aides or government-subsidised speech therapy will be withdrawn because they are NDIS services available only to permanent residents or citizens.
“You have families having to pay a lot of money to get vital early intervention,” says Cox. “That child will have an impediment throughout their life because they haven’t had the early intervention they need.”
From July 1, 2017, Kiwis were finally granted a new pathway to citizenship with the introduction of a new skilled visa. “Your skill is being a New Zealander,” says Cox, laughing. Applicants must meet the same criteria as other skilled migrants: earn $53,900 for five years, pass health checks and a character test. The primary applicant, who must pay $3,670, can pay $1,800 to sponsor a partner or a dependent aged between 18 and 23 and $900 per child under 18.
Around 100,000 people plus their dependents are eligible for the new visa. It’s “fantastic” for the people it helps, says Cox, but still leaves just as many people – including significant numbers of Maori and Pacific Islanders – without a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.
The new visa won’t help Kiwi parents Sharon and Jarrod and their children, who appear in SBS six-part documentary Struggle Street series two. Homeless and unemployed, the couple has little chance of ever meeting the criteria.
“The eligibility criteria are a screening tool. If you went to university and you have a decent job, you’re fine,” says Cox. “The most disadvantaged can’t afford the fee for a start…it’s $10,000 or $12,000 to put the family onto that visa.”
'Why don’t they go home?'
It’s a common question if you’re a New Zealander who needs financial support from the government - why don’t you just go home?
“Some can’t afford to go back,” says Cox. “I’ve dealt with a case where the husband was a Kiwi and the wife was Australian. All her family are here in Victoria. She has a terminal brain tumour. He was unemployed…she couldn’t travel and didn’t wish to leave her family…he was chronically mentally unwell, yet was deemed able to work three days a week and was not given a disability support pension.
“The longer you are here, the more entrenched your life becomes. It’s not easy to go home."
“Then you get the people who are so financially strapped, they don’t have two cents to rub together and they’re living in their car or sleeping in parks. There’s a whole underbelly that is completely ignored by the Australian government.” These disenfranchised New Zealanders fly under the radar, she says. “They look just like Australians, they don’t stand out – but they are there.”
It’s unreasonable to expect people to “pick up sticks and go”, says Cox. You might have children at school, a mortgage, a business and extended family in Australia.
“The longer you are here, the more entrenched your life becomes. It’s not easy to go home. So 'why don’t you go home?’ [The answer is] because your home is here.”
If you or someone you know are in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand.
Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.