I had just crawled into bed on the eve before Election Day, October 17, eyelids heavy after a long day at work, when my partner said, "you know, it's possible we actually can vote in the election tomorrow".
"No, we can't," I said. "I've looked it up several times. You have to be a permanent resident."
"But someone showed me a post online where a person with our same visa contacted the Electoral Commission and finally found a manager who confirmed that they were eligible to vote."
Now my interest was piqued. Could we have been mistaken this whole time?
The Electoral Commission did a good job of promoting voting. There's the orange person campaign appearing on bus stops and in newspapers. Tertiary education institutions have encouraged students to enrol and vote. At our rental house, a flyer and a letter from the Electoral Commission appeared in the mailbox encouraging us to enrol and vote.
We got the message – we wish we could vote too. We have lived in New Zealand for several years under various visas and the Government's policies directly affect us. It's frustrating being excluded. But now I was frustrated that inconsistent and unclear language by different government departments might have tripped me up.
Immigration New Zealand uses the term "permanent resident visa" to refer to a specific visa that you can usually obtain only after having a "resident visa" for two years. Securing a "resident visa" means you jumped through all the hurdles to qualify for residency but still have travel conditions.
My travel conditions specify a date that is "the last date you may travel and re-enter to New Zealand". This visa allows you can stay to live, work, and study, but if you want to travel out of the country after that date, you need to apply for another resident visa or a permanent resident visa.
The permanent resident visa (what migrants call PR) is the golden ticket – it means you don't have to keep reapplying for visas and have almost all the privileges of a citizen.
I knew a resident visa unlocked access to the publicly funded healthcare system because my private workers' health insurance said it was no longer valid once I gained residency.
What I didn't know was that it also unlocked many other services and the right to vote.
What I discovered that Friday night through my research was that government departments and other organisations define "permanent resident" differently. To them, it ambiguously means any form of resident visa, not only the misunderstood PR.
The New Zealand job site Seek illustrates this confusion in its application question: "Which of the following statements best describes your right to work in New Zealand?" Choices include: I'm a permanent resident and/or Australian citizen; I have a skilled migrant temporary work visa (e.g. silver fern visa); and I require sponsorship or a current job offer to work for a new employer (e.g. work-to-residence visa, skilled migrant resident visa).
These responses do not accurately reflect the terms used by Immigration New Zealand.
Instead, these suggest that having a resident visa is not the same as being a permanent resident.
With voting, the Electoral Commission uses the term "permanent resident" and tries to clarify by saying this means "if you're in New Zealand legally and not required to leave within a specific time". You also have to have at some time resided in New Zealand continuously for a year or more (though the Electoral Act 1993 does not clarify if this must be while you're on a resident visa).
The term "permanent resident" along with the deadline related to my travel conditions was what had confused me. Even the staff at the Electoral Commission had been confused about the eligibility criteria, according to the person who posted their experience online.
Then there was KiwiSaver. What hurt financially was finding out I had been mistaken about KiwiSaver eligibility.
I was in fact "entitled to live in New Zealand indefinitely" as the criteria requires (as long as I never leave the country, I guess). I calculated my partner had missed out on thousands of dollars of contributions. I had just started a new job so had missed out on less.
As for border restrictions, I had thought we couldn't leave the country and return but this was again because of the term "permanent resident" being used by politicians and the media.
In actuality, you can also travel to New Zealand if you are "a resident with valid travel conditions" and had already travelled here previously (I think we can agree this is the best place in the world to be right now though).
As for work and income benefits, I was still correct about our ineligibility for Jobseeker support, because you have to hold a resident visa for two years before you can get these benefits. Work and Income NZ uses the term permanent resident on it's main webpage, and you have to dig deeper to see that this means holding either a resident or permanent resident visa.
Another benefit is eligibility for free courses or domestic fees for courses. Yet institutions use different terms. For example, Te Wānanga o Raukawa mentions "permanent residents and domestic students". Te Wānanga o Aotearoa uses the phrase "resident living in NZ". Ara Institute of Canterbury and the University of Auckland use the term "New Zealand Permanent Resident". AUT avoids the ambiguity with the phrase "A holder of a NZ residence class visa currently living in NZ" (This is closer to the definition of a domestic student in the Education Act 1989).
My discoveries were a lot to take in, but at least we were fortunate that same-day voting enrolment was available this year. On Saturday morning, we excitedly walked to a local station to enrol and vote. We also filled out KiwiSaver enrolment forms and signed up on our first day back at work.
The Government and organisations in New Zealand need to use clear and consistent terminology that migrants can easily understand and recognise.
Surely others — including those for whom English is not their first language — have also been confused about the terms "permanent resident" and "resident".
I hope sharing my discoveries can help other migrants avoid making the same mistakes as I did and fully embrace living as residents of New Zealand.
• Dr Kara Kennedy is a researcher and writer focusing on science fiction and digital literacy.