New Zealand's long-standing offer to take in some of the refugees Australia has detained on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea may be about to be accepted. The condition of those on Nauru, especially the children, is said to be deteriorating and their plight became an issue in a byelection for the Sydney seat vacated by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which the Liberals lost at the weekend.
During the campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to take the heat out of the refugee issue by suggesting the New Zealand offer could be accepted under one condition. Any of the refugees admitted to New Zealand would be under a lifetime ban from entering Australia. When asked whether that condition was acceptable to New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern said, as she has before, that it was entirely a matter for Australia.
Is it really? Does her Government have no concern that not all law-abiding New Zealand citizens in future might have the same access to Australia?
We are a country of not yet five million people. We are extremely fortunate to have a practically open border with a nearby country of 25 million. Young Kiwis use that access to pursue careers in an economy of greater scale and opportunities not so far from home. They do not need to have a skill in short supply in Australia as other immigrants do.
Australians have the same rights of access to New Zealand. It's a relationship with deep historical routes but it has never been formalised. Contrary to common belief, it was not part of the Closer Economic Relations agreement in 1982. Our negotiators saw no threat to reciprocal residential rights at that time. New Zealanders have always taken their access for granted, and continued to do so when we castigated Australia for restricting expats' rights to its welfare, and for its offshore detention of unchecked refugees trying to enter Australia by boat.
But we should not assume reciprocal access to Australia is cast in stone. If Australia finds New Zealanders' unique access raises too many anomalies and difficulties for its immigration policy, we could easily lose it. If Australia decides to accept our Government's refugee offer on the terms Morrison has proposed, the Australian Government would face a new issue of racial discrimination. Its solution then might well be to treat all New Zealanders the same, simply by vetting them in the same way it does with applicants for residence and work visas from all other countries.
It might not come to that. The Australian Labor Party, which is likely to win the federal election due by May, disagrees with the proposal to impose a lifetime immigration ban on anybody who has tried to enter Australia illegally by boat. The ALP is advocating a refugee resettlement deal with New Zealand on specified terms. But the ALP, once in power, has changed its tune on boat people before.
Australia's refugee issue is not going away. It is afraid that if it opens a "back door" through NZ, the problem will get worse. It is in our interest to start treating it as New Zealand's issue too.