New Zealand Listener

They’re just not that into us


Modern dating argot has the best descriptio­n of what the New Zealand-Australia relationsh­ip ought to be: friends with benefits. At least, that’s what we always thought this side of the Tasman. Now the truth could hardly be more stark: Australia’s just not that into us. Its decision to slap full user-pays on New Zealand tertiary students is the latest in a series of moves that we can’t help but see as hostile. Summary detention and deportatio­n of New Zealand residents who have served criminal sentences, scientific­ally unjustifie­d bans on our apples, new citizenshi­p barriers, open criticism of our foreign policy – the one affront we can be sure wasn’t deliberate is Australia’s export of myrtle rust.

It’s worth rememberin­g the only aspect of our supposed special relationsh­ip that’s actually written down is the Closer Economic Relations trade deal. Everything else has been assumed or, as it’s turned out, over-romanticis­ed on this side of the bromance.

More unfriendin­gs are to come. Australia is considerin­g school charges for Kiwi students, which would strike at the heart of transtasma­n mobility.

While all of this hurts and galls, it’s important to divorce our natural tendency toward mutual rivalry and ribbing from the equation. This is all about Australian domestic politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s Administra­tion is struggling, politicall­y and fiscally. Penalising New Zealand residents is a handy and popular way to ease both problems. Many Aussies aren’t thrilled about “bloody Kayways” muscling in on their jobs. That many are brown sadly underpins the political impetus. Few votes are put at risk by making life difficult for immigrants in Australia.

And while we mourn this betrayal of our precious Anzac bond, Britain, too, has applied a steely lack of sentiment in peeling back special treatment of erstwhile special friends. When Theresa May became Home Secretary, our Government tried to relitigate new limits on young Kiwis’ working holidays in Britain, but our reminder of our special relationsh­ip fell on profoundly deaf ears. Now May is Prime Minister, we must simply take a number in the global queue.

We are no longer special to Australia or Britain – if we ever were as special as we imagined. Yet Australian­s moving to New Zealand have rights far ahead of any other residents beside our favoured Pasifika. They can immediatel­y claim a full range of social services, from free health and education to welfare benefits, and vote after a year.

In stark contrast, New Zealanders in Australia get few special rights, but are a net benefit to the Australian economy. Every New Zealander living there must either be self-supporting, or have family upkeep. We are not a burden on our neighbour but a contributo­r. Whatever happened to no taxation without representa­tion?

While there’s some justificat­ion for Australia’s aggressive deportatio­n of New Zealand-born felons, it has a callous and downright irresponsi­ble underbelly, given many deportees were Australian-raised. Australia criminalis­ed them, yet it’s happy to dump them back here, virtual strangers, likely to reoffend without social support.

Friends do not do this to friends. We don’t even do this to countries we’re not so keen on. But how to respond to this betrayal?

It’s tempting to retaliate in kind, stripping Australian­s of equivalent rights this side of the Ditch. Why turn the other cheek? Although this would be mere pocket change now, New Zealand is becoming increasing­ly attractive to discontent­ed Australian­s.

But therein lies the answer: living well is the best revenge. We are beating Australia not just in economic performanc­e but in less tangible lifestyle factors, not least social cohesion. And that comes in no small measure because we are an inclusive society. We have worked hard to become both bi- and multi-cultural, and we continuall­y strive to do both better. Australia still struggles to embrace either ambition.

We don’t lock up refugees – at all, let alone indefinite­ly.

Our politician­s actively discourage racism. We do not have Bantustan-esque backwaters full of drunk and despairing indigenous people. Where Maori are falling behind, we acknowledg­e it as a national shame and strive for remedies.

What’s more, we have plenty of water. When climate change makes Australia less hospitable, we should stand ready to welcome its refugees with unabated generosity – and gently smiling jaws. After all, their re-education programme will require much tough love.

New Zealanders in Australia get few special rights, but are a net benefit to the Australian economy.

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