An Auckland couple "destitute" in Queensland with pensions axed face the threat of repaying all the $16,000 superannuation they got since leaving New Zealand last year.
Trapped couple Keith and Michele Gorrett's super was stopped from January 8 because they have been out of New Zealand for more than the mandatory 26 weeks under the Ministry of Social Development's Work and Income regulations.
"This just beggars belief. We are destitute and Australia doesn't provide any relief to non-residents. Please help us we have nowhere else to turn," retired mechanic Keith Gorrett, 67, a permanent New Zealand resident, said.
She is a Kiwi but he is a migrant who arrived in New Zealand in 1994. They went to Queensland and Victoria last winter to see family, grandchildren and friends, never expecting to be in the situation they are in now.
"We had our pension stopped on January 8," he said, telling how they were unable to return for all these months due to shut New Zealand borders and with no set date to return.
But that's not what's worrying the Hobsonville couple most right now.
"Worse, we have now been informed by the Ministry of Social Development that if we don't return by February 4, we will incur a debt for the amount we've received in pension payments from the day we left New Zealand on July 9 last year," a worried Keith Gorrett said.
That could mean repaying more than $16,000, he said.
A letter from the ministry's processing team threatened them with the prospect of seeking full repayment for all super while across the Tasman: "Please note that, if a person is absent from New Zealand for more than 30 weeks, then domestic New Zealand superannuation entitlement ceases from the day after they leave New Zealand and they would incur a debt for the entire period that they had received any domestic New Zealand Superannuation entitlement while overseas," correspondence to the couple said.
A return is impossible due to no MIQ and he fears full repayment demands could be enforced.
"We are in our 60s, sleeping on a couch at a friend's house, have no income, no home, are unable now to pay our New Zealand rent plus we face a debt if or when we get home," he said.
Work and Income tells Kiwi travellers: "If you're delayed and return to New Zealand after 26 weeks, your NZ super or veteran's pension payments will stop after the 26th week. If your delay is expected, you may have to pay back the 26 weeks of payments."
In response to him raising concerns, a Ministry of Social Development official wrote to Keith Gorrett in January saying: "I empathise with the situation you and your wife have found yourselves in."
An official told them that on February 5, it would be 30 weeks since they had left New Zealand, "so you would need to be back by the 4th of February if both payments are to resume. There is no exception to this date."
Opposition revenue spokesman Andrew Bayly is worried about the Gorretts and others like them and he has been in touch with them. He has been dealing with a number of Kiwis trapped in Australia as well as one in Morocco.
"We certainly have a story to tell," Michele Gorrett wrote to Bayly on January 27.
The couple has also been in touch with Opposition social development and employment spokesperson Louise Upston who said she had tried to help Kiwis trapped overseas.
"It's absolutely outrageous," Upston said of the Gorretts' situation.
A spokesperson from her office said: "Louise proposed a law change in October last year, giving MSD discretion to allow pension payments to continue where Covid-19 restrictions prevented someone returning to New Zealand."
But Labour voted against that order paper, arguing people could apply for an exemption yet Upston said many people applying were still being denied their super.
Last year, fearing for their incomes, the Gorretts applied for a New Zealand MIQ room, seeking dispensation due to what they said in their application were exceptional circumstances.
But they lost all lotteries and have no fixed return date.
"How does this not qualify for emergency room allocation under financial hardship?" a frustrated Keith Gorrett asked.
Even when they applied for MIQ, they had to prove their marriage: "Who goes overseas with their marriage certificate?" Gorrett asked.
A Managed Isolation and Quarantine official from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment emailed them on January 7 saying: "Unfortunately, based on the information you have provided us, you do not meet the criteria for a new voucher under this process."
That means no emergency MIQ was granted.
Like many Kiwis, they went to Australia in last winter's border bubble, expecting to be able to return after just three months.
But soon after arriving, the border slammed shut, stranding them for six months.
"We did manage to book a flight home on December 1 but that flight was cancelled," Gorrett said.
They had done all they could to alleviate their poor circumstances.
"Rest assured, nobody more than us wants to get back home. I hope this will not impact on our ongoing superannuation payments because we have no other income," he said.
Staying in Australia was costing most of their super payments and they were still paying New Zealand rent.
"I wouldn't wish this on anybody and it's all out of our hands. The Government keeps you out and takes away your only source of income. How inhumane and cruel is that?"
Work and Income allow super payments to be portable but Gorrett said that could mean they would get considerably less money if they applied for that.
Michele only turned 65 last April. She is listed as a non-qualifying spouse so does not qualify for portable payments at this stage.
"If I filed that it would exclude any payments for my wife until she qualifies in her own right, at least 18 months down the track and my payments would be worked out pro rata over the time I've been away. It worked out to be, according to them, about $136/week," he said.
He had been receiving $638/fortnight and she had been getting $573/fortnight.
"If we had to repay it, that would be $16,789," Keith Gorrett said.
The couple had lived in Australia for 11 years, from 2009 until 2020 when they returned to live with family in Weymouth for seven months.
"Over here, we lived in a caravan in our daughter's driveway but we left Victoria to travel to Queensland to have a better chance of a flight back to New Zealand. We are staying with friends currently but stayed in a cabin for two nights on the journey to Queensland," Gorrett said.
"We came back to see family, grandchildren and friends in Queensland and Victoria. We had loose ends to tidy up, finalising accommodation, sending home personal items from storage as we were back in New Zealand to see out our retirement," he said.
George van Ooyen, group general manager for client service support said the ministry appreciated the difficult circumstances many superannuitants were facing as they try to return home.
"We are considering applications on a case-by-case basis for superannuation and veteran's pension payments to continue beyond the 26-week temporary absence period, under portability provisions," he said.
"This is available to people whose absence from New Zealand is solely linked to the travel bubble closure, and it will continue as long as it is needed," he said.
Non-qualified partners of pension recipients, who were absent for longer than 30 weeks due to circumstances they couldn't have reasonably foreseen, could contact MSD about receiving the first 26 weeks of payments without having to make a repayment, he said.
The assessment would take into consideration their circumstances, those of their qualifying partner, and whether the non-qualifying person's situation is beyond their control.
"If they cannot be reinstated to their partner's pension, the non-qualifying partner may apply for a main benefit in their own right. We encourage New Zealanders overseas to contact us and discuss how we may be able to help within the parameters of discretion legislation allows us," van Ooyen said today.