Are New Zealanders voting with their passports? The message in a slew of recent stories about people moving overseas is that the government is failing so badly, they have no choice.
The mantra seems to be getting through. “The health system’s completely stuffed. It’s Third World. I’ve got this mole my doctor says looks a bit odd and I need to see a specialist but there’s a two-month waiting list on the public health. So that’s it. We’re going to move to Noosa. Everything’s better over there.”
This monologue was recently shared at high volume in a Napier restaurant. Let’s hope the mole turned out benign and the move to Noosa and a superior health system was accomplished within the two months it might have taken if the speaker had hung in here.
Leaving aside questions about the advisability of exporting a dodgy melanoma to a place where, according to a Queensland tourism website, “The sun shines … more than most other places in the world, with an average of seven long hours … every single day”, the sentiment won’t surprise anyone who has been following the news.
Daily, we are assailed with multiple media reckons from the likes of real estate agents affirming they have never had more enquiries from people wanting to sell their homes because they’re fed up and are moving to Australia. They’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, real estate agents are hardly the most disinterested parties when it comes to advising people whether or not to sell their homes.
If all those stories have even an iota of truth, by the time this piece is published, it is possible there will be no one left in Aotearoa New Zealand to read it.
Just look at these recent headlines: “Huge increase in police being called to shops to protect retail workers” … “‘Without them I’d be starving’: cost-of-living crisis forcing more than ever to rely on food banks” … “International far-right monitor identifies hate groups” … “Record number of threats against MPs reported to police” … “Police crack down on escalating gang violence after home targeted in drive-by shooting” … “‘Ongoing crisis’: Alarming share of young people can’t afford to save for a house” … “Pothole repair bill soars to $4b record” … “Urgent action needed now on crisis-ridden hospitals”.
It’s no wonder people are thinking of moving. But hang on a minute – those headlines are all from recent Australian news reports. It seems that not only does everyone have problems, everyone has pretty much the same problems.
Pluses and minuses
Anyone moving across the Tasman will find themselves facing many of the difficulties they thought they were leaving behind. They deserve to know what they’re getting into.
First, the good news. Besides waiting-list times, one reliable measure of health is being alive. Average life expectancy in New Zealand is 82.8 years; in Australia, it is 83.94. So, only a few months in it, one way or the other.
For potential migrants, the persuasive economic advantages of moving were well canvassed in these pages by Pete McKenzie (“Friends with benefits”, June 10).
And, yes, it’s easier to earn more in Australia, but it helps if you’re the right colour. The 2021 Census found the median personal income for indigenous Australians aged 15 and over was A$540 a week. The median income of all Australians aged 15 and over was A$805.
But you have to be paid a certain amount to be able even to think of moving. The New Zealanders who are struggling most, living in poverty and working multiple jobs, can’t afford to heat their homes, let alone change countries. That’s how poverty works.
And when they do get to the wide, brown promised land, they won’t find much in the way of gender equity, respect for the indigenous population or concern for the environment. New Zealand can’t rest on its record in any of these areas, but we do have one.
Migrants will not encounter any annoying debates over languages on signage in Australia. According to the Medical Journal of Australia, “System‐wide racial discrimination and inequitable access to justice impedes indigenous rights to health and wellbeing.”
So, again, not much to choose between the two. New Zealand, as one eminent expatriate has noted, is “racist as fuck”, the Treaty of Waitangi notwithstanding.
Australian media are currently aflame with bitter attacks on the notion of “granting” Aboriginals a constitutional voice (“Voices of hope”, August 26). It would let them express an opinion on whether legislation affected them. It’s unpopular with many white Australians because of the limited amount of influence it allows Aboriginals. And it’s unpopular with many Aboriginals because of the limited amount of influence it gives them.
Indigenous Australians have had the right to vote since 1962, so moving to Australia is not recommended for anyone who is uncomfortable with rapid change. This is a country that in four elections chose as its prime minister John Howard – a man who could stand up this year and still say that colonisation by the British was “the luckiest thing that happened to Australia”.
The mining industry, which drives the ebullient economy that protects the country from international economic shocks and attracts migrants with its promise of prosperity, has permanently damaged any number of sites of profound environmental and cultural significance. Fortunately, Australia being the size it is, these locations are handily out of sight and therefore out of mind for most locals.
Life’s different if you’re a bloke. Women have to deal with the reality that Australians “were regularly above the global average when measuring misogyny on a country-by-country basis”, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald on research conducted for the Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.
Looking further afield, as Listener columnist Bernard Lagan has noted (“Show of force”, August 26), Australia, realising there is no such thing as a nuclear-free lunch, is enthusiastically beefing up its US defence links. Just look at that kangaroo; you can smell the uranium in its pouch.
Superior shopping has long drawn New Zealanders across the Tasman. It is still streets ahead of what you can find locally.
Some of the world’s hardest-working police can be bought at surprisingly reasonable prices. An article on the Sydney Criminal Lawyers website sets out “how the corrupt activities of police officers across Australian jurisdictions are remarkably similar in nature to one another”. What a lucky country to have so much corruption to choose from that you can make a comparative study.
When it comes to political corruption, local bodies historically have a reputation for doing most of the heavy lifting, but are currently dragging the mayoral chain somewhat. This year, the country as a whole improved its standing on the international Corruption Perceptions Index by two places from a record low two years before. Well done, them!
“A spoilt brat country”
Of course, ingratitude knows no borders. Nearly half of Australia’s young adults are thinking of moving overseas within 12 months. And no wonder, with all those problems at home.
According to an Australian study late last year, “The No 1 factor making Aussies crave a change was job opportunities, but desired lifestyles play into it as well.”
In a story riddled with multiple ironies, the Guardian interviewed young expat Australians who weren’t planning to return home because Australia is “a spoilt brat country” that doesn’t do enough for refugees, with limited opportunities in tech and creative industries, and “way too conservative in how it views risk”.
Fortunately, it doesn’t look like the supply of New Zealanders will slow any time soon. “The ease and cost of travel across the Tasman is so low these days that you can think of New Zealand and Australia as being in the same labour market,” says Stats NZ’s Kim Dunstan (see “Moving scenes”, right).
“We’ve had people living in New Zealand who are basically commuting to work in Australia on a weekly basis. There’s just so much more mobility nowadays, and that’s clearly a really important part of not just the migration dynamic, but labour market dynamics in this part of the world.”
Choosing to stay
It is, of course, possible to live in Australia (or commute) and ignore its blemishes – just as it is possible to stay in New Zealand, do something about its problems and focus on things that have a value that can’t be expressed in dollar terms.
If you’ve been getting the feeling that you’re missing out on something while friends and whānau strike out for the bright lights, maybe don’t. Although there are, and always have been, good headlines to be had out of brain-drain scenarios, there is an untold story about the New Zealanders who stay – not because they can’t go but because they choose not to.
Some of their seldom-heard motives were recorded in an illuminating thread that sprung up on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
“Plenty of people who could do well overseas choose to stay here, not just because NZ has a lot to offer, but because they feel a responsibility to muck in and keep the ship afloat through whatever area they’re working in.”
“We have kids that came home to less pay, much less paternity leave and other work benefits but wanted family in their children’s lives.”
“It’s not loyalty or patriotism, it’s plain, bone-deep love.”
Many factors affect individuals’ decisions to migrate in one direction or another: economic conditions, family feeling, environmental concerns, political paranoia, age and the enthusiasm, or lack of it, for taking off on an OE. The numbers can be hard to read.
Kim Dunstan, Stats NZ’s senior insights analyst for population, says migration figures are extremely volatile. We oscillate between large net migration gains and net migration losses over short periods.
Although non-New Zealand migrants have recently had a big impact on the total, over time, “ups and downs of net migration are mainly driven by New Zealand-citizen departures … It’s like a roller coaster, even excluding the unusual net gain we had during the pandemic.”
As to what drives the totals, there are some things numbers can’t tell you. “There’s not a single reason. It’s a combination of labour market conditions, social, cultural and family ties, and often it can be about the relative economic conditions between, say, New Zealand and Australia and the perceived labour market conditions.”
Covid may have brought some people home, but pent-up demand due to pandemic travel restrictions has been released and probably helped drive recent high numbers leaving.
“For a number of years, New Zealand residents were somewhat reluctant to travel internationally because of the risk of borders somewhere closing and then being potentially trapped in a country.”
Furthermore, “historic reasons for Kiwis doing the OE still exist. That’ll also be contributing to the migration that we’re seeing now.”
How much do we know about the absconders? Frustratingly little, with meagre information collected on departure.
However, says Dunstan, “the evidence that I’ve seen suggests that they’re actually spread across all occupation types and all skill types. So, everything from unskilled to tradespeople to professional occupations.
“New Zealand citizens tend to come and go in proportion with the population size of each region.”
No Southland tsunami of departures, then.
Many leave only to come back once they have made their fortunes or otherwise sated their wanderlust.
“Return migration is significant. New Zealand-citizen migrants arriving back are generally the largest citizen group. Not everyone returns, but significant numbers do.”
New Zealand’s popularity may be on a downhill trajectory with locals, but foreigners sure do love us.
In the year to June 2023, 86,800* more people arrived here than left.
That figure takes account of a net migration loss of 34,800 New Zealand citizens, considerably more than the net migration loss of 12,400 in the previous 12 months.
Where are they going? Stats NZ says roughly half are going to Australia, a figure that fluctuates over time between 40% and 80%.
Overall, there was a net migration loss of 13,600 people to Australia in the year ended last December.
Most New Zealanders left:
Year to February 2012, net migration loss 44,385.
Fewest New Zealanders left:
Year to October 2020, net migration gain 24,572.
* Numbers are provisional. Source: Stats NZ.