Your wouldn't know it from the television coverage but the deal done for Kiwis in Australia by Prime Ministers John Key and Malcolm Turnbull last weekend was quite a breakthrough.

For the first time, we have a formal agreement giving New Zealanders an exclusive door to Australian citizenship. If that doesn't sound remarkable, it is because we have lived under the delusion that we have always had it, and for a long time we probably did in a de facto sense. We were two white colonies in a remote corner of the world and we could live and work on either side of the Tasman without permits, let alone changing citizenship.

But in the last quarter of last century, immigration policy practically everywhere changed from essentially racial selection to wealth or skills in short supply. By the turn of the century Australians were complaining that migrants were using New Zealand as a back door to Australia and that too many Kiwis were on welfare over there. In 2001, the Howard Government restricted benefits for non-citizens and our governments have been arguing a case for Oz Kiwis ever since.

Many here have said, "Why don't they simply become citizens?" It has not been that simple. Until last weekend they had to meet the same criteria as applicants from anywhere else in the world. Now they don't.


Yet all we saw on OneNews last weekend was an ungrateful sod grizzling that the deal would do nothing for most Kiwis there because the path to citizenship was available only to those earning above Australia's median wage. The good news, he said, was just "spin".

His admission that as many as two thirds of our expatriates are earning less than the median wage (currently A$53,900) told me I have indeed been a victim of "spin" and it has not come from a government.

For years we have been reading that Kiwis have been paying their way in Australia, working hard, paying taxes and contributing fully to the country that denies them the rights of full citizens. It has often been stated by their lobbyists that Kiwis have a higher employment rate than the rest of the population, and even that they earn more on average than Australian-born workers.

Like all spin, these statements can conceal more than they reveal. It turns out they have a higher employment rate because the Kiwi community is disproportionately young adults, though I still can't explain the claim of higher average earnings now that it turns out two thirds, maybe more, are in the lower half of Australia's wage earners.

For years we have been reading that Kiwis have been paying their way in Australia, working hard, paying taxes and contributing fully ...

They are said to be working in trades, retail, hospitality and the like. They are probably itinerant young bartenders, builders and cafe staff enjoying the big cities and warmer climate, and good for them. But they are mobile and if they need welfare the can come home.

I thought we were sending successive governments into bat for established families whose children were growing up in Australia and that the breadwinners were earning enough to be net taxpayers, covering the health and tertiary education benefits they were being denied.

That would have been the argument Key has made to Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and now Turnbull, and Helen Clark made to John Howard before him. Key has had some success at last with a fellow former currency dealer.

Turnbull obviously was persuaded to establish a special citizenship status for Kiwis but insisted it should be available only to those whose taxes would cover the cost of their benefits. He also wanted them to have an earnings record above the median wage for the past five years, and citizenship on those terms would be available only to Kiwis already in Australia on the date of the agreement.


Key accepted that because it would take Australia some time to deal with possibly 100,000 qualifying applicants already there and anyway, no new arrivals would qualify until they had been there at least five years. He is hopeful the same deal might be done for them when the time arrives.

As he has said publicly, and no doubt put to Turnbull, the problems created by Kiwis' peculiar position in Australia are only going to get greater as time goes on.

In these circumstances it is a marvel really that we can retain our "special relationship" as far as we have. It must be tempting for Australians to say, "It's an anomaly of history that has had its day. To hell with it. Kiwis can apply to live and work here like everybody else."

But like us with the Polynesian islands, Australia must value the connection. The deal done last weekend was reasonable, balanced and sets a valuable precedent. It is the basis for a new, permanent, transtasman citizenship.