COMMENT

This may be just paranoia on my part but I can't shake a terrible foreboding that Australia is on the point of accepting our offer to take some of the boat people from Papua New Guinea and Nauru. It's even possible the announcement could come from PNG this weekend where the prime ministers of both countries are at the Apec summit.

If it doesn't, I'll still wonder whether Australia's latest PM gave Jacinda Ardern a heads-up when they met at the East Asia Summit in Singapore earlier in the week. Before the meeting she told reporters she was not expecting any advance on the offer, and at the press conference afterwards she was keener to engage him on the risk of slipping on onions from a sausage sizzle.

It makes a change from last year when her diplomacy was not as practised and her comments on Australian policy got under the skin of Malcolm Turnbull. But things have changed in Australia too.

Advertisement

Last month the plight of the migrants at Manus Island and Nauru hurt the Liberal Party in a byelection for the Sydney seat vacated by Turnbull. Desperate to defuse the issue, Scott Morrison declared the Government might accept New Zealand's offer to take 150 a year on condition they would be permanently banned from entering Australia. The Australian Labor Party has exactly the same policy.

The Liberals lost the seat and its governing majority. The Coalition is headed for certain defeat at the election due by May unless it does something drastic.

Right now the only thing preventing bipartisan agreement on accepting New Zealand's offer is a Coalition bill that would put a lifetime ban on anyone who has attempted to enter Australia illegally wherever in the world they end up. The Labor Opposition wants the ban to apply only to those who go to New Zealand.

Our Labour Party appears to see no harm in this. When Ardern was asked about it last month she smiled and said a ban of that sort was up to Australia. Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the same. Enough said.

The harm we would be doing ourselves would not be apparent for some time, possibly not in the life of this Government. It would not start until our new citizens began trying to cross the Tasman.

Imagine the response in Australia when it starts favouring some New Zealand citizens over others, and those discriminated against are mostly from the Indian subcontinent. Australians are sensitive to any accusation they are reviving a "white Australia" immigration policy they had for so long.

At that point, the simplest solution would be to close the door to all New Zealanders unless they could show Australia needed them. In other words, if they want to do more than visit Australia they would have to meet the same criteria as immigrants from anywhere else.

It constantly amazes me how much we in New Zealand take our privileged access to Australia for granted. We can go to live and work there whenever we like, for as long as we like, doing any job we can get. We don't need to have skills in short supply there, or meet the usual immigration criteria. No other nation's citizens can do this

We do the same for Australians, of course, which is why we think we have a right to take our access to Australia for granted. But let's get real. We have 5 million people, Australia has just passed 25 million. It's economy measured by GDP is six times larger. An economy of that scale offers much more opportunity to us than we can offer Australians.

It amazes me we don't think about this. In the Herald last week Massey University's Professor Paul Spoonley wrote about a conference he had just attended in Sydney where he was dismayed to find New Zealand ignored in Australia's immigration debates.

"There were literally no references made to New Zealand anywhere," he wrote, "except by those of us actually from New Zealand. This was puzzling given than New Zealanders represent one of the largest overseas-born populations, hence 'immigrants', in Australia."

My heart sang when I read that. If Australians do not think of us as "immigrants" that is exactly how we should want it. We are welcome there as long as we don't break the law or live on the dole. That seems reasonable to me.

Spoonley complains we have, "fewer settlement and access rights than immigrants from anywhere else in the world". Those immigrants have qualified for citizenship which we don't have to do. We're able to live and work anywhere in an Australasian economy.

We are extremely lucky and we need to wake up to this quickly, before Australia accepts our generous offer on a condition we could live to regret.