Trans-Tasman disintegration

Imagine a time when it would be possible to cross the Tasman without a passport, when Australia and New Zealand would treat each other’s citizens effectively as if they were their own, allowing them to vote after a matter of months and offering them the full range of government services from the moment they stepped off the plane. This vision of an Australasia in which people could move between nations as easily as between Australian states may seem futuristic – indeed, many people have suggested such arrangements as the ultimate aim of trans-Tasman integration. However, this is no futuristic vision, but simply how things were in 1980.

Much is often made of how there has been unprecedented integration between the countries since the beginning of the 1980s. Certainly, there have been significant achievements, such as Closer Economic Relations and the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Agreement, which have resulted in almost completely free trade across the Tasman. However, what is often forgotten in these celebratory accounts of the last thirty years is how, in relation to policy relating to the movement of people, there has been much more disintegration than integration.

The bond between Australia and New Zealand has always been based on people – their shared history, language, culture, and experience – but this has been neglected in recent years by policy makers. The ability to sell frozen peas, or any other product, without tariffs or quotas – effectively what has been achieved over the last thirty years – may benefit certain individuals and businesses, but has little direct effect on the vast bulk of the people of Australasia. By contrast, most people’s experience of these years of ‘trans-Tasman integration’ has ranged from being inconvenienced (e.g. through being required to go through passport control on trans-Tasman flights) to having their lives destroyed (e.g. by being denied any government assistance in a time of need).

For almost two centuries, from the beginning of European settlement, people had moved freely across the Tasman. This ended in 1981 (during the time CER was being negotiated), when the Australian Government introduced a requirement that passports must be carried on trans-Tasman flights. The move was sparked by fears people were illegally entering Australia via NZ as the two countries maintained separate migration and visa policies. These concerns were legitimate, but the failure of the two governments to find a solution that could maintain passport-free travel was merely the first of many that would undermine the free movement of people across the Tasman and the broader aims of trans-Tasman integration.

It was only soon after this in 1984 that New Zealand citizens lost the right to vote in Australia. This happened as Australia removed the right of ‘British subjects’ (a term that included NZ citizens) to vote, a move that logically followed the collapse of free movement arrangements between many Commonwealth countries in the 1960s and 1970s. However, this move did not take into account the fact that unlike the UK, NZ still maintained a free movement agreement with Australia, allowing its citizens to move there effectively as freely as a Tasmanian could move to Victoria.

Between that time and 2000, both Australia and NZ began to impose waiting periods before which each other’s citizens could not access government services. None of these were for longer than two years.

The sum total of changes relating to the movement of people between 1981 and 2000 was undoubtedly a step backwards in trans-Tasman relations. However, at the same time, they were not entirely incompatible with the proper operation of a free movement agreement and were more likely to cause minor inconvenience than serious hardship or disenchantment. New Zealand citizens could no longer vote in Australian elections, but could still easily become Australian citizens after two years. Citizens of both countries faced waiting periods before accessing certain government services in the other, but were still able to receive assistance in exceptional circumstances. Indeed, there are legitimate policy reasons for the introduction of reasonable waiting periods, for example to stop exploitation of the welfare system.

The changes Australian enacted from 2001 onwards, however, are an entirely different matter. Their denial to long-term residents who are NZ citizens of the ability to access government services or apply for citizenship is entirely incompatible with the principle of free movement of people and the operation of a trans-Tasman labour market and Single Economic Market. Not only do the 2001 changes leave most NZ citizens moving to Australia in a migration dead-end, forever unable to access many government services or to become citizens, but the retrospective changes to policy by federal and state governments since then have seen them stripped of further rights.

Most have no option but to sit by and watch their situation in Australia deteriorate. As they are barred from becoming citizens, they can do nothing to secure their position and have no political power to push for change. They also find themselves permanently barred from large swathes of the supposedly common trans-Tasman labour market, being unable to apply for employment in the Defence Force, the federal public service, and related fields, because they are unable to become Australian citizens.

Treatment of New Zealanders over time

Listed below is a summary of how New Zealand citizens in Australia have been treated over time:

  • until 1949 New Zealanders are treated identically to Australians. There is no legal definition of ‘Australian citizenship’, Australians and New Zealanders being treated identically as ‘British subjects’.
  • 1949-1984 New Zealanders enjoy similar rights to citizens, including right to vote and access all government services without any waiting period.
  • 1984-2000 New Zealanders enjoy rights superior to other permanent residents with waiting periods varying over time between 0 and 6 months for access to government services. They, however, no longer automatically receive the right to vote, but can gain it by becoming citizens after two years of residence in Australia.
  • 2000-2001 New Zealanders enjoy rights identical to those of other permanent residents, being able to access all government services and apply for citizenship after two years of residence in Australia.
  • from 2001 New Zealanders have substantially fewer rights than other permanent residents, being barred from applying for citizenship and denied access to an ever increasing number of government services.

written by Dr Timothy Gassin

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