Proposed changes to Australia’s citizenship laws have angered New Zealanders who have lived there for years without the same rights as others – but it’s just the latest in a series of setbacks for expat Kiwis over the years.

For Australians and New Zealanders, Anzac Day is a time to put aside traditional rivalries and reflect on those who have contributed and suffered in the name of the two countries.

However, the hundreds of thousands of Kiwis living in Australia could have been forgiven for feeling less charitable in the wake of another blow to their rights.

Under changes by Malcolm Turnbull’s government announced last week, prospective Australians must wait four years after receiving permanent residency before applying for citizenship – instead of one year as is currently the case.

That has caused an outcry among expats, coming barely two months before the start of a new, streamlined “pathway to citizenship” announced by the two countries last year.

Tim Gassin, chairman of the Oz Kiwi expat lobby group, says the citizenship changes are just the latest setback in a decades-long struggle for Kiwis trying to make a live for themselves in Australia.

Until 1994, New Zealanders who moved across the Tasman were treated as “exempt non-citizens” – essentially, as permanent residents.

A requirement for all non-citizens to hold visas led to the introduction of the Special Category Visa (SCV) for Kiwis, technically classed as temporary despite the lack of a maximum residency period.

However, the most significant change came in February 2001 under John Howard’s Coalition government.

Irked by the growing welfare costs of New Zealanders living in Australia, Howard sought to present then-Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour government with the bill.

That led to a revised migration agreement, and a two-tiered approach to Kiwis across the ditch.

Those who arrived before the 2001 announcement were classified as protected SCV holders, entitling them to the same welfare rights as Australian residents and giving them a pathway to citizenship.

Kiwis who arrived afterwards became non-protected SCV holders, with severely restricted access to social security entitlements and no pathway to permanent residency without obtaining a separate visa – a sharp contrast with the rights of Australian citizens in New Zealand.

The issue was forced into the spotlight by Australian law changes in 2014, allowing the deportation of foreign nationals who had served sentences of a year or longer, including SCV-holding Kiwis who had spent decades living in Australia.

In late 2015, Labour leader Andrew Little headed to Canberra to lobby for expats’ rights, appearing before a parliamentary committee.

Pathway to citizenship

Then in February 2016 came news of a “pathway to citizenship”. Kiwis who had arrived in Australia before the announcement, had lived there for at least five years, and earned more than AU$53,900, could apply for permanent residency and then citizenship after a one-year wait.

The new citizenship guidelines do not revoke that, but Gassin says the quadrupled waiting time could prove a significant deterrent for those who were planning to apply.

He also describes the move as a breach of trust, with potential applicants concerned that the Australian government could “pull the rug from under them” yet again.

“There’s been a huge amount of uncertainty for people who expect to plan their lives around reasonable assumptions of being told by the Government, if you apply for this visa you’ll be eligible for citizenship in a year…and now have been hung out to dry.

“[If] they hand over thousands of dollars to get their family through, who’s to say that a couple of months before they’re ready to get citizenship, in four or five years’ time, the rules won’t change again?”

In addition, the longer wait could lead some perverse consequences for younger Kiwis preparing to study at university.

In 2005, the Australian government removed the abilities for Kiwis studying in Australia to access higher education loans.

That was changed in 2015, with SCV holders who had moved to Australia as dependent children and lived there for at least 10 years given eligibility.

Crucially, any SCV holders who transition to being permanent residents lose access to student loans while they wait to become citizens – a wait now four years long, instead of one.

“They call it a Special Category Visa – what they should be calling it is a permanent alien visa, because the only thing we’re entitled to do is come here and pay our taxes.”

Maria Dunn, who moved to Australia with her family in 2002, is among those caught out.

Her husband received permanent residency, then citizenship, after discovering he was eligible for a Resident Return Visa.

The couple then applied for permanent residency for their two oldest daughters, 15 and 17, to get them through the citizenship process before university.

Maria Dunn with her husband Stephen and their children Ayla, nearly 17, (standing) and (front row left to right) Isabella (15), Yana (6) and Julia (5). Photo: supplied. 

The teens were granted permanent residency in July last year, and Dunn had their citizenship paperwork ready to go on July 2 when news of the citizenship changes broke.

“The really irritating thing for me is that we spent $7000 applying for permanent residency for the two older ones, specifically so that financially university wasn’t going to be too much of a burden.

“Well, we could have spent that $7000 and thrown it down the toilet pretty much, because essentially it means that money is wasted.”

Dunn says her daughters are now in a worse position as permanent residents than they were as SCV holders, facing a four-year limbo period without citizenship or student loan eligibility.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that my husband is in the process of opening up a franchise business here, I would be packing my bags and going home to New Zealand…to me it’s just an absolute slap in the face…

“They call it a Special Category Visa – what they should be calling it is a permanent alien visa, because the only thing we’re entitled to do is come here and pay our taxes.”

“This is one of the things that’s prompted [people] to go back and think, ‘Well why should I build a life in a country that will never accept me as an equal?’”

At a time when the Government is attributing record net migration levels to more Kiwis returning from Australia and fewer heading the other way, Gassin says that sense of alienation is among the factors for those choosing to stay in New Zealand.

“We hear cases of people, there may be other things in their lives but this is one of the things that’s prompted them to go back and think, ‘Well why should I build a life in a country that will never accept me as an equal?’”

The issue has already caught the attention of some Australian opposition politicians.

Queensland-based Labor MP Jim Chalmers, who met Little during his Australian trip, says it “beggars belief” that the Turnbull government had blindsided New Zealand with the latest changes, given the close relationship between the two countries.

“It is sheer incompetence for the government to be only realising that this creates problems for New Zealanders after the announcement has been made.”

However, Labor has not yet staked out a position on the legislation, believed to be still considering its options.

Gassin says Oz Kiwi will continue to lobby Australian politicians to oppose the citizenship legislation when it goes before Parliament later this year, although he acknowledges the lack of voting rights for expats is “one of the biggest obstacles” to their voices being heard.

Closer to home, Prime Minister Bill English described the changes as disappointing, and said a case for an exemption could be made by Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee as one of his first discussions.

However, Dunn says she has no confidence in the ability of the Government or Kiwi expats to win any meaningful concessions, given the lack of progress by the former and the inability of the latter to have any say at the ballot box.

“We are a powerless bunch – we have no power here and they damn well know it.”

That sentiment seems to be backed up by the Australian government’s response to date, with a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton saying the citizenship changes did not change Australia’s commitment to the pathway for Kiwis and adding that the visa requirements for New Zealanders were “more generous than those for citizens of any other country”.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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