Kiwis living across Tasman will finally get better deal after Australia reviews temporary residency rules

By Sharon Brettkelly for The Detail for RNZ

We're near neighbours, and close diplomatic allies – but for over twenty years now, New Zealanders living in Australia have had their chances at gaining citizenship scuttled. With a new prime minister at the helm, change is finally on the horizon.

By Anzac Day next year, New Zealanders living across the Tasman should get a better deal, after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her new Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese announced long-awaited changes to their rights. 

It will mean an easier route to citizenship, as well as voting rights, putting them on par with Australians living here – ending more than two decades of inequality.  

Under the current rules, Australians get permanent residence the moment they land in New Zealand and they automatically have the right to become citizens after five years. All they need do is pass a character test and a basic English language test, and have lived in New Zealand for at least eight months of each of those five years. 

Most Kiwis are in Australia on a special category visa, brought in by John Howard’s government in 2001. Their path to citizenship is not so easy – they have to apply on the same basis as any other migrant, it is costly, and it is not guaranteed. 

Leanne Carlin, who moved to Australia with her husband Richard and two daughters eight years ago, describes it as a "very weird thing". 

"You can come over here, you can live here as long as you like, you can work here but you're not automatically a permanent resident," she tells The Detail

Kiwis, of course, pay taxes. But they cannot access unemployment benefits, student loans or disability payments, they can't join the Australian Defence Force, police or fire service, and they cannot vote.   

Carlin says they knew what they were in for when they decided to leave Whakatāne and take a chance on a new life in Brisbane in 2014. 

"We didn't expect anything from Australia. When you go to live in a foreign country, I don't think you should expect them to take special care of you. 

"But New Zealand and Australia have this trans-Tasman travel arrangement, so if you're going to have an arrangement then make it an equal arrangement." 

When the 2001 changes came into effect, New Zealanders already living in Australia were considered permanent residents and could apply for citizenship, and they could access basic social services like welfare payments in the meantime.   

Those who arrived after 2001 have had no direct pathway to citizenship.  

"The Howard government was of the view that people were using New Zealand as a backdoor to Australia," says Stuff's political editor Luke Malpass. 

Malpass was in Sydney last week when Ardern and Albanese announced they had agreed, in principle, to end the situation where people are effectively left permanent temporary residents. 

There are promises of a more "harmonised, reciprocal" regime. 

Malpass explains to The Detail how relations soured between Australia and New Zealand and reached a low point in 2014 when the so-called 501 deportations started. 

"The Aussies got into a habit of not really giving New Zealand anything that didn't have any political upside," he says.

"Even if it was bad for the relationship – they basically took the relationship for granted – they said we'll go ahead and do it anyway." 

Last week's announcement was a turnaround in attitudes to New Zealanders, both in the treatment of 501s and the citizenship issue, says Malpass. 

Ardern has been calling for greater acknowledgement of the contribution New Zealand expats are making to Australia. She's also pointed to the low rate of New Zealanders who become citizens compared with other nationalities. 

According to the 2021 census, about one third of the 530,000 people born in New Zealand and living in Australia are citizens there. This compares to three quarters of expat Fijians being Australian citizens and the same figure for Britons. 

After eight years in Australia, Carlin and her family are now on the path to citizenship through her husband Richard, who met the criteria for the skilled independent visa and was able to apply for permanent residency. 

Carlin says her family has a good life in Brisbane and she's happy to become an Australian citizen.  

"It's a means to an end," she says. 

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Kiwis living across Tasman will finally get better deal after Australia reviews temporary residency rules