Labour MP Kelvin Davis is right. It is disingenuous of John Key to say Australia's detainees at Christmas Island are free to leave if they want. They can leave only to return to New Zealand, where they could continue their appeal against deportation from Australia. Mr Key has been assured by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that their chances would not be reduced by coming back here. But they are probably thinking yeah, right.
The detainees have a better chance by staying on Australian territory, albeit a hot, desolate island in the Indian Ocean where this week they have staged something of a riot. It is said to have started with an argument over the death of an Iranian Kurd asylum seeker who tried to escape from the detention centre, but that was just the trigger for the ex-convicts with cancelled visas to start fires, smash walls and cause the immigration officers to retreat from that part of the facility.
The incident will have done nothing for the prospects of the individuals involved, nor has it helped New Zealand argue on their behalf that they have paid their dues for breaking the law of their adopted country and their rehabilitation is best served by remaining where they have families and social connections.
But their frustration can be understood, particularly if, as one of them told the Herald this week, they have agreed to come back here but their applications are taking as many as 14 weeks to process.
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Deportation on the scale the Australian Government is undertaking cannot be quick or cheap. Each detainee will have to be escorted to the point of departure. It hardly seems worth the cost, let alone the damage to Australia's international reputation, when incidents such as the Christmas Island riot occur.
Some Australians are saying so, but many more must be solidly behind the Liberal-National Coalition's hard line on expat Kiwis who have committed criminal offences. The fact they and their families may have been Australian residents for most of the offender's life cut no ice with Mr Turnbull when he was here.
Mr Key continues to put his hopes in gentle persuasion rather than public criticism of Australian policy. His response to the riot has been almost sympathetic to Canberra, arguing that if Australian prisoners were rioting at Paremoremo he would not expect a protest from the Australian Government. Opposition parties think he should at least be asking questions of Australia at the United Nations, where it is under investigation by the Human Rights Council, and seeks a seat on that body.
But the fact remains New Zealand has more to lose than to gain by pressing too hard. Citizens of no other country have the right to live and work in Australia as freely as New Zealanders do, without becoming citizens or officially permanent residents. This privilege has been enjoyed by citizens of both countries since time immemorial, but never formalised, it seems.
We have no treaty to invoke against deportation of Kiwis who have been there a long time. We can only hope Kiwis who go there take note, and do not let us down.
Debate on this article is now closed.