‘Best Friends’ Australia and New Zealand Patch Up a Major Difference

The swearing-in ceremony had an unusual guest. Hundreds of New Zealanders were about to take an oath to become Australian citizens, and cheering them on in their pursuit of dual citizenship was the head of the New Zealand government.

There was reason for all to celebrate. Australia was about to reverse a two-decade-old policy and restore rights for the almost 700,000 New Zealanders living in Australia to easily gain citizenship, putting them on par with Australian migrants across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand.

Australia and New Zealand often describe each other as their closest international partners. But in recent decades Australia’s treatment of migrants from New Zealand — making it harder for them to obtain citizenship and deporting thousands under a new law — has led to a rift between the two allies. The new center-left government in Australia, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has taken steps to address these issues.

At the citizenship ceremony on Sunday in Brisbane, Australia, Chris Hipkins, the prime minister of New Zealand, said his presence was a sign of the “bonds that bind us all together.” That sentiment was later echoed by Clare O’Neil, Australia’s home affairs minister: “Our Kiwi cousins are our very best friends in the world.”

Still, tensions remain. Behind the bonhomie, there have been strains on the enduring ties between these neighbors, particularly on matters of migration and foreign policy. Chief among them was a sudden policy shift by Australia in 2001, when a conservative government made it much harder for New Zealanders to get citizenship.

Those changes followed decades of dog whistles by the Australian right about New Zealanders, in particular those of Indigenous Maori or Polynesian descent, who were cast by some as taking advantage of Australian hospitality and unemployment benefits.

Mr. Albanese at a citizenship ceremony in Brisbane on Sunday.Credit…Darren England/AAP, via Reuters

Australia created a special visa category for New Zealanders that allowed them unrestricted work rights but prevented them from receiving the same entitlements and protections granted to permanent residents and citizens. This condemned hundreds of thousands of New Zealand migrants, particularly lower-income workers, to a level of long-term insecurity no other migrants to Australia have had to endure.

On Sunday, after years of prodding, Mr. Albanese announced a streamlined process for New Zealanders living in Australia to attain citizenship after four years. The changes from 2001 should never have been made, he said. “True friends have equal relations, and that’s the partnership that New Zealand and Australia have,” he said.

But even as Australia restored the trans-Tasman balance on migration, some New Zealanders said it was not an altruistic move. New Zealand is reckoning with a skills shortage and a slowing economy, and the news was received with glum resignation, amid concerns that even more Kiwis would take flight for Australia and its much bigger economy.

“Australia is the net beneficiary,” Grant Duncan, a political commentator and researcher at Massey University in New Zealand, said. “They’re getting, on average, highly skilled, employable Kiwis who are earning good incomes, and therefore they’re contributing to the Australian economy as skilled employees and of course as taxpayers.”

The right-wing opposition in New Zealand was even more scathing.

“The Aussie government played Hipkins like a didgeridoo,” David Seymour, the leader of the libertarian Act party, told local news media. “They have just done a raid on New Zealand talent.”

Australia and New Zealand are tightly bound. Citizens of each country have always been able to live and work in the other indefinitely; and so common is dual nationality that multiple Australian politicians have been forced to resign after learning that they were also New Zealanders without even being aware of it.

Mr. Albanese with President Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain in San Diego in March.Credit…Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The pair have a sweeping free trade agreement and an integrated military history.

But they are on slightly different foreign policy trajectories — unlike Australia, New Zealand opposed the Iraq war and is staunchly nuclear-free. Australia’s plan to build, with the United States and Britain, nuclear-powered attack submarines has caused consternation in New Zealand about how it would affect the Treaty of Rarotonga, which designates large areas of the Pacific Ocean as nuclear-free.

“Our concern is not to see the militarization of the Pacific,” Nanaia Mahuta, the New Zealand foreign minister, said last month.

For Australia and the United States, the submarine deal, part of a new partnership known as AUKUS, is a counter to China’s growing influence in the region.

Different approaches to race and migration have also complicated the trans-Tasman relationship as far back as 1901, when New Zealand declined to become Australia’s seventh state in part because of concerns about how what would become the “White Australia” policy would apply to its Polynesian or Indigenous Maori citizens, said Paul Hamer, a researcher at Victoria University of Wellington.

Those differences have reverberated across the decades. “A lot of it is unspoken,” he said of the historical racial component in Australian policymaking. “Occasionally, it’s out in the open.”

In the most recent iteration, Australia in 2014 amended its immigration laws to allow it to cancel visas and deport individuals on the grounds of “character,” often related to a criminal conviction. Since 2015, about two-thirds of the nearly 3,000 New Zealanders who have been deported were Maori or Polynesian, according to the New Zealand government.

A celebration of Anzac Day, which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, in Brisbane this week.Credit…Darren England/EPA, via Shutterstock

For the deportees, many of whom have children in Australia, the policy has been brutal, said Filipa Payne, the founder of the advocacy group Route 501. New Zealand has been ill-prepared to accommodate them and has taken few steps to help them reintegrate. “We’ve struggled,” she said.

In January, Andrew Giles, the Australian immigration minister, ordered that individuals’ connection to the Australian community be considered before a deportation is carried out. Consequently, deportations have already fallen by about a third, Ms. Payne said, and by her estimation, “over half the people that have been deported to New Zealand already would not have been deported, if they’d been offered a pathway to residency.”

The directive does not apply to those already in the process of being deported, which can take many years.

While many New Zealanders in Australia expressed profound relief about the legislative changes and the security they offered, some espoused little affection for their big, brash adopted home.

Dean Hillyer, an engineer for a gas turbine company, first moved to Australia 12 years ago, seeking an alternative to New Zealand’s poor housing stock and miserable South Island winters. Moreover, he said, “the job I do now simply doesn’t exist in New Zealand.”

Mr. Hillyer, 47, will apply for Australian citizenship “sooner rather than later,” he said, especially after hearing of New Zealanders who had been unable to access certain benefits related to disability and health. Yet even after so long in Australia, the decision was exclusively a pragmatic one, he said.

“It’s for financial reasons more than being patriotic or feeling like I owe the country something,” he said.

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