Information for New Zealanders living in Australia

A tiff across the Tasman

Illustration by Satoshi Kambayash
Illustration by Satoshi Kambayash

Australia is kicking Kiwis out, and New Zealand is unhappy about it

A disproportionate number of deportees are of Maori or Pacific Islander descent

09 August 2018

Eleanor Whitehead - The Economist correspondent Sydney

New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, knows how to stir the pot. In the midst of a diplomatic tiff with his country's biggest and usually chummiest neighbour, he suggested that Australia was in need of a new flag. Its current one, he complained, too closely “copied” New Zealand's. Since the two ensigns are so similar, Australia's should be the one to change. (Australia's flag was designed first, but was formally adopted a year later than New Zealand's, in 1903.) Mr Peters, who recently served as interim Prime Minister while Jacinda Ardern was on maternity leave, has a solution: an enormous kangaroo, “like the maple leaf in Canada”.

The tiff is over Australia's increasing deportations of New Zealanders. In 2014 a conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, tightened deportation rules. Any foreigner sentenced to a year in jail now fails a “character test” and has to leave the country. Kiwis may live and work freely in Australia. Since about 650,000 do so, the rule hits them the hardest. Since the law was changed, at least 1,200 New Zealanders have been cast back across the Tasman Sea. Oz Kiwi, an advocacy group, estimates that around 170 New Zealanders are currently in detention centres awaiting deportation, more than any other nationality.

Australia makes no concessions for those who came as children but never changed their passports. Neither does it for juvenile offenders, or petty criminals with short sentences that cumulatively add up to 12 months, even if those were suspended. Historic crimes were once ignored, but the law now works retroactively, counting ancient infringements committed overseas as well as recent ones in Australia.

Some prior offenders are stopped at airports. Australian authorities catch others, like Tommy Murray, a former biker, inside the country. He did four stints behind bars for crimes including drugs and burglary before moving to Australia. He says he lived law-abidingly for 16 years and paid A$1.2m ($890,000) in tax before his past caught up with him. In detention, he argues he was refused much-needed medication, then booted out without being able to see his family. “My country treated him barbarically,” says his Australian wife Sara, who followed him.

New Zealand politicians periodically grumble about Australian deportations, but the political mood between the two countries soured markedly when a 17-year-old was recently thrown into an adult detention centre in Melbourne. The deportations had “a venal political strain” to them, said New Zealand's Justice Minister, Andrew Little; Australia “doesn't look like our best friend, our nearest neighbour.” Australia, Mr Peters added, was in breach of the UN convention on children's rights.

The 17-year-old has since been released, but critics also raise questions about racial fairness. New Zealanders of Maori or Pacific Islander descent are disproportionately affected by the changes, because they are more likely than average to have convictions. About 60% of New Zealanders who have been deported from Australia since 2014 are “brown”, as Joanne Cox of Oz Kiwi puts it. Citizenship is reserved mostly for the skilled and relatively wealthy: only about 8.4% of New Zealanders who arrived in Australia in the decade after 2001 got passports. The rate for Maoris was below 3%.

Paul Hamer, a researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand's capital, suggests that Australia's souring mood has been fed by “dissatisfaction” at New Zealand's openness to Pacific migration. It threw open its doors to the region at a time when Australia still banned all but white immigrants (today it sets annual quotas for newcomers from the Pacific). People of Pacific Islander descent are 8% of New Zealand's population. Politicians in Canberra, the Australian capital, have complained for decades that such migrants exploit a “backdoor” to Australia.

Its conservative coalition government under Malcolm Turnbull is so concerned about border control that last year it rebuffed New Zealand's offer to resettle asylum-seekers from detention centres run for Australia's benefit in Nauru, a tiny Pacific island state, and Manus island, part of Papua New Guinea. Almost 1,600 “boat people” remain in the controversial camps, with no idea of when they might be released. Australia's opposition leader, Bill Shorten, says he would reconsider the New Zealand proposal if his Labor party wins the general election that must be held in the coming year. But not, he adds, before dealing with the issue of their onward movement.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition of The Economist under the headline "Kicking Kiwis out”.

[Read The Economist article].