Editorial: Australia's welfare rules disadvantage both sides

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Bushfires and droughts have failed to shake Australians' belief that they inhabit the lucky country. Photo / AP
Bushfires and droughts have failed to shake Australians' belief that they inhabit the lucky country. Photo / AP

Bushfires and droughts have failed to shake Australians' belief that they inhabit the lucky country. For many New Zealanders, too, it is a land of opportunity, the answer to their every woe. But as this week's Herald series, "When the dream turns sour", has revealed, there are good reasons to question that view. The warning signs are clear for New Zealanders who cross the Ditch, especially those with children.

One reason for caution lies in the availability of jobs. Most of the record 53,800 New Zealanders who moved to Australia last year went to the east coast, notably Brisbane and Sydney. Yet job availability is decreasing there as the Australian economy slows. The major employment opportunities lie in Western Australia, where the mining boom endures. That, however, does not appear to have dissuaded many people from trying their luck on the eastern seaboard.

Doubtless, a large number do not understand the consequences of not finding a job. They leave for Australia without realising they will not have access to most of that country's welfare safety net, including dole and disability payments.

They may not have been aware of the disadvantages they face as a result of measures in 2001 that were taken to block the backdoor migration of Pacific Islanders and Hong Kong Chinese through New Zealand, and to lower the cost of social security payments to expatriate New Zealanders.

They may not understand that these restrictions mean they will remain effectively guest workers, paying full tax but with few rights to welfare and higher education assistance.

It is easy to understand Australians' concerns about backdoor migration. But fears about the cost of social security payments to expatriate New Zealanders never stacked up. Those expatriates were actually paying A$2.5 billion in tax, against A$1 billion in social security outlays. Nonetheless, Canberra introduced the new welfare rules 12 years ago after its efforts to create a common immigration policy with this country faltered.

The policy is unfair in a multitude of ways. But it is at its most egregious in dealing with children who cross the Tasman, even those whose parents readily find work. Those youngsters, some of whom know little other than growing up in Australia, need access to student loans, scholarships and apprenticeships.

Effectively, they are cut off from higher education, no matter how hard-working or motivated they may be. Their parents may have had some idea that their entitlements would be restricted and that they would have little chance of gaining full rights or Australian citizenship. Their children, however, did not sign up for permanent second-class status.

This social exclusion and a resultant sense of alienation benefit neither side, as has been pointed out by academics from Griffith University and the Queensland University of Technology. Australia misses out on human and economic potential, and social problems arise when capable young men and women find themselves consigned to low-paid, low-skills jobs.

For some, the only way out is to return to a country they hardly know. For New Zealand, that may entail welfare payments to people who, although citizens, have never paid tax here.

The exclusion of New Zealanders from some state programmes has been defeated by anti-discrimination suits. But the issue demands the attention of the Australian Government.

At the moment, Canberra is showing little interest, even though the value of New Zealand workers is underlined constantly by Australian companies' recruitment campaigns. These, of course, never dwell on the sour side to the Australian dream.

- NZ Herald

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