Tags: aussie | newzealand | migrant | ban

Aussies Mulling Kiwi Migrant Ban

Wednesday, 25 Nov 2009 09:34 AM


SYDNEY, Australia — Australia vs. New Zealand. Think of it as the U.S. versus Canada, writ small: a rivalry between two feisty little nations, members of a dysfunctional family of former British colonies called the Commonwealth, the bigger one inclined to pick on its little brother mercilessly.

Aside from the occasional spat (usually over claims of sporting prowess), these antipodean siblings — separated not by a land border but rather a choppy little sea — have been able to coexist and share toys (visa-free travel, crossover job markets, even standing armies) ... until now.

What's changed? An Australian has suggested what many — but by no means all — have secretly pondered in times of increasing joblessness and inflation: shut the Kiwis out.

Kelvin Thomson, a member of parliament in Australia’s ruling Labor Party, couched it in more cerebral, less inflammatory terms than that. But his recent call to put limits on Australia’s long-standing open-door migration policy toward its tiny eastern neighbor was what you might call a diplomatic smart bomb: it made some sense from a distance, but none to those living in the impact zone.

“It’s been in place for a very long time,” Thomson said of the 36-year-old rules that allow Australians and New Zealanders to move between each other's countries essentially as if neither nation had a border. But, he told GlobalPost in a telephone interview from his Melbourne office: “I think it needs to be renegotiated. In order to have a population policy you have to have a migration policy.”

It comes down to this: Australia, whose land mass almost matches the U.S. in size, has a population of about 21 million people, the vast majority of them cluttered in coastal cities. Many — including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the leader of Thomson’s own party — are on record as supporting a “big Australia” policy, driven by immigration. But renegades like Thomson hear population goals of 35 million (by 2049) and shudder; this barren, isolated land cannot sustain such numbers, he said, and recent polls suggest the Australian people don’t want to try.

His solution: put a stop to generous migration rules and in particular take an axe to the most conspicuous beneficiaries: New Zealanders, almost 50,000 of whom flooded the country as long-term arrivals in the year to last July alone.

Tossing such a proposition into the midst of an always sensitive relationship was bound to raise hackles, especially given these nations have a history of such close ties that through two world wars their armies fought under one banner, that of the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), and still serve side-by-side in various peacekeeping missions.

Easy migration to Australia is “so everyday,” said Rosemary Baird, a student at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who is doing her Ph.D. on the Kiwi exodus to Australia. Of Thomson’s proposal, she said: “There would be a lot of opposition to it. I think a lot of New Zealanders regard it as their right to move to Australia without it being a major issue. There are so many of us there, and I don’t think they would necessarily go if it was complicated, if they had to go through a visa process and so on.”

One high-profile Kiwi migrant, Caterina de Nave, told GlobalPost that Thomson was tapping into an out-of-date image of New Zealanders coming to Australia only to go on welfare and get a tan. “It’s as if he’s gone for that old thing of Kiwis being on the dole at the beach and that hasn’t been true for a long time, a decade or more,” said De Nave, who migrated earlier this year to take up her role as head of drama production at SBS, a public television broadcaster. “New Zealanders as an immigrant group are the most productive group in Australia.”

A more grassroots-style opposition to any such plan comes from Barbara Mathieson, a migrant from Auckland who runs the Australia-New Zealand Club on Australia’s Gold Coast: “I was really offended,” she said of Thomson’s speech. “I wondered why he was picking on New Zealanders. It’s discrimination against one race.”

Yet Kelvin Thomson is no bigoted redneck. On the most vexing of migration issues facing Australia — the question of how to deal with refugees and asylum seekers — he is progressive, proposing increasing admissions for the world’s disadvantaged, including climate-change refugees. His argument is that Australia cannot maintain a population policy skewed by an unpredictable open-slather attitude to its closest neighbor.

“The idea that population is going to take care of itself is just wrong,” he said. “Not only does it never happen, population is now a runaway train. This open-ended, uncapped program makes it impossible for Australia or New Zealand to implement a population policy and it needs to be reformed.” His plan, he insists, “would do great things for Australia.”

That last statement hangs out to dry the notion that what’s good for Australia is good for New Zealand. There are those two wars to consider, and much other shared history besides. Both were British colonies (and Queen Elizabeth formally remains head of state on both sides of the Tasman); they competed under one banner at two Olympics, in 1908 and 1912; the Australian Constitution even includes a 108-year-old provision (rejected, but still on the books) for New Zealand to join its neighbor as a seventh state.

But New Zealand, population 4.2 million, will always have reason to fear coming off second best. “We’re at the bottom of the world,” said Caterina de Nave of New Zealanders. “And there are only about 12 of us,” she adds with typical — it might be said, typically antipodean — laconic humor.

Rosemary Baird said her compatriots “feel smaller, they feel inadequate” compared to Australia, where “the weather is better, the economy is stronger. They’ve got a bigger place on the world stage.”

Australia dwarfs its neighbor economically — about eight times bigger, in gross domestic product terms. The best the Kiwis can hope for is an occasional sporting triumph in decades-old sporting feuds in rugby contests or on the cricket pitch. “The sporting arena is where we live out the competitiveness,” Baird said.

De Nave agrees. “It’s a sibling kind of thing. We like to punch each other up on the rugby field.” Sport aside, Australia so dominates the relationship there’s good reason to think most Kiwis have already surrendered. The open-door policy works both ways, but look at the numbers; almost half a million New Zealanders currently call Australia home; roughly one-tenth that number have migrated the other way.

New Zealand’s conservative Prime Minister John Key is on record as describing Australia as a “giant sucking machine” that inhales the best and brightest of his people, leaving him to deal with a crippling brain drain. “We’d really like to draw them back,” Keys said in a wire service interview earlier this year. “In the end New Zealand has … a real problem it needs to address, and quickly.”

Such sentiments indicate Kelvin Thomson’s plan might find a receptive ear across the Tasman at a political level, whatever upset it might cause the thousands of average New Zealanders. As Thomson told GlobalPost: “It mightn’t be the worst thing in the world” for New Zealand if more of its nationals stayed home.

Psychologically, however, throwing up any sort of barrier between these two outposts of Empire would seem certain to turn an old but friendly rivalry into something far more contentious. Until now, the only New Zealand product barred from entry to Australia has been the humble apple — an 88-year-old ban prompted by fears of the bacterial fire blight disease. But put people in the same barrel as bad apples and Australians might find familial bonds start to fray.

Barbara Mathieson, who’s seen this rivalry wax and wane from both sides of the sea in her 69 years, said that like all niggly siblings, the two nations just need cooler heads to prevail. “We are very closely bonded,” she said. “We just need clear-headed and clear-thinking politicians and governments to work it out.”

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