Australia set to close Kiwi 'back door' to migrants

When Lisa Bowman was 21, she did what many young New Zealanders do - she traveled across the Tasman Sea and took a job in Australia.

Today she has a successful career as an Internet consultant. While both her mother and government are eager for her return, she has little desire to move home. "I go back to visit every year, but the economy there is pretty hard," Ms. Bowman says.

A talented New Zealander living and working in Australia, Bowman is part of a trend that has accelerated as Australia's economy has boomed while New Zealand's has languished. More than 30,000 New Zealanders a year now join the 400,000-plus "Kiwis" living in "Oz."

But that trend is now forcing a redefining of the relationship between the two countries. New rules are expected to be implemented next March under which migrant New Zealanders will no longer be eligible for Australian government benefits, including free healthcare and education.

According to Malcolm Campbell, a historian at the University of Auckland, migration between the two countries dates back to their history as British colonies. Settled later than Australia, New Zealand was once ruled from Sydney, and cross-Tasman migration has through the ages depended on just where the potential fortunes lay. "When gold was discovered in New Zealand in the 19th century, many people came from Australia," he says.

More recently, migrants from other countries have been using New Zealand as a back door into Australia. In the past 10 years, the number of New Zealand citizens born in a third country and moving to Australia has grown from just 960 a year to almost 10,000, according to Australian immigration figures.

That number represents more than 1 in 9 of the migrants settling in Australia annually. In many cases, Australian officials say, the New Zealand migrants originally from places like China and small Pacific nations like Tonga and Samoa are ones Australia wouldn't normally accept.

The problem led Canberra this month to push for New Zealand to tighten its immigration standards so that the two countries' policies are more similar.

But already faced with a persistent net loss in annual migration, New Zealand reacted angrily to the suggestion. What has emerged instead is the welfare deal, which Australian officials expect to halve the number of New Zealand migrants. The shift requires New Zealanders not only to apply for permanent residency in Australia, but also to meet the same standards as other migrants if they want to obtain benefits, establishing a system in which Australia can pick and choose just which New Zealanders it wants.

New Zealanders travel to work in Australia at a rate far greater than Australians going in the opposite direction (only about 5,000 did so last year). And just who shoulders the A$800 million (US$432 million) benefits burden of New Zealanders living in Australia has long been one of the few stresses on a warm relationship.

"There is actually a strong bond between Australians and New Zealanders, until you start talking about the issues that you're talking about now - New Zealanders coming to Australia and who's paying," says Bowman.

According to Rob Stevens, a New Zealander in the political science department at Sydney's University of New South Wales, diverging economic fortunes have caused a "very big gap in living standards" between Australia and New Zealand.

Although the United States and Canada don't share a common labor market in the same way Australia and New Zealand do, the relationships are similar. For one, like many Canadians living in the US, many New Zealanders feel patronized by their bigger neighbor. "I still find it quite irritating that Australians think they can't learn anything from New Zealand or New Zealanders," Mr. Stevens says. "But I probably wouldn't go back."

And like Canada, New Zealand has watched its bigger neighbor swallow up its talent on occasion. At the Sydney Olympics earlier this year, New Zealanders in Australian uniforms won more gold medals than the New Zealand team as a whole.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark argues that New Zealand's economy is on the mend and that the brain drain is slowing. Soon after her election a year ago, she called for New Zealanders abroad to come home and help rebuild their country. In the year to October, she points out, New Zealand's net annual migration loss has fallen to 9,270 compared with 10,680 the year before. "It is easy for our best and brightest to take their skills elsewhere," she wrote in response to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald. But "the outflow is countered by the growing numbers of people finding the country an attractive place to work and study."

To Bowman, Clark's sales pitch rings hollow and reeks ever so slightly of a guilt trip. Moved by the political rhetoric at home, her mother asked recently whether she feels guilty about putting her government-funded education to work in Australia.

"I still feel nostalgia toward my part of New Zealand," Bowman says. "[But] I feel I'm doing my fair share for New Zealand over here.... I don't see myself ever really going home."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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