New Zealanders living overseas feel like they’re forgotten by politicians back home, unless there are votes to be made. Laura Walters reports on what’s driving the expat vote this election

As many as one million New Zealanders live overseas but some say they are forgotten, except for when there are votes to be made. 

This is something the Kiwi diaspora has felt keenly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some New Zealanders rushed home, or ended their visas early, back in March. But many living in Australia, the United Kingdom, the Americas, and in other parts of the globe didn’t have the choice to walk away from expensive leases and jobs to the unknown future of no job, and no house, back home in New Zealand.

In recent months, those who stayed overseas have borne the brunt of a growing “us versus them” rhetoric, which reached peak nasty during the debate over whether returning Kiwis should have to cover the cost of their managed isolation or quarantine.

While this sparked discussion about Kiwi expats, those living overseas say their voices weren’t heard. They expected this was because the expat vote was only valuable to a select few, and only at election time.

Similar to those based in New Zealand, Kiwis overseas say the biggest issues for them this election are jobs, financial stability and access to welfare support, if needed. 

But many say New Zealand politicians – particularly those in the major parties – haven’t supported overseas New Zealanders during this time – if anything, they had stoked the debate in an effort to win votes at home.

This will be front of mind for eligible overseas voters come the October 17 election, and for those who continue to return to New Zealand in the wake of Covid.

Clint Heine, who runs the popular Kiwis in London Facebook page and has lived in the UK for more than a decade, said the estimated 58,000 New Zealanders living in the UK didn’t receive attention from either the Government or Opposition unless there were votes to be made.

When asked what the community wanted from political parties, he said: “For a start, not just thinking about us every three years at election time.”

Those living in the UK had tight bonds with New Zealand and were “loud and proud”, Heine said.

“But there does not seem to be much interest in us outside the media stories.”

And New Zealand’s political leaders did a “really disappointing job” in supporting expats during the pandemic.

Founder of the 81,000-strong Facebook group Kiwis in London,Clint Heine, says NZ politicians only pay attention to expats once every three years, and even then, it’s limited. Photo: Supplied

The community was proud of the New Zealand Government’s Covid response, and agreed quarantine was there to protect Kiwis back home.

“So to be pulled into a debate about quarantine costs, and an ‘us vs them’ argument without any backup from the Government has been, for many of us, heartbreaking.”

The Government had been polling well off the back of its ‘kindness’ approach.

“So for the prime minister, with her enormous political capital to push us aside and insist on us paying to see our families and loved ones, is a big kick in the guts for many of us.”

Meanwhile, Kiwis living in Australia – the biggest diaspora population – also felt they had been left to fend for themselves, without a safety net.

In 2019, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated there were 570,000 New Zealand-born people living in Australia. But other estimates put the population as high as 650,000.

Christel Broederlow, a Māori community leader from the Gold Coast who runs the Māori in Oz Facebook page, said New Zealanders who had lived and worked in Australia for years have now found themselves without jobs or access to welfare.

The experience of the pandemic had left them feeling shunned by governments from both countries, she said.

Broederlow found herself fielding a stream of messages from people in desperate situations, who had lost jobs, accommodation, had no access to financial assistance, and were unable to access the limited number of high-cost flights back home.

Meanwhile, back home the goalposts were being moved with the introduction of the quarantine fees.

“There are thousands of New Zealand citizens here who are eligible to vote… and would cast a vote to a political party that was willing to take note of our unheard voices.”

In an effort to help Kiwis stranded in Australia, Broederlow and other campaigners wrote to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and  Ardern calling for access to welfare payments.

After receiving the letters, Ardern secured access to the Australian government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy for New Zealand citizens living in Australia, whose work had been affected by the Covid crisis.

While this was an improvement, other welfare schemes remained out of reach.

Broederlow said the current New Zealand government, and former governments, have had the opportunity to do more for Kiwis living in Australia, but it felt like the Australian government called the shots.

“As each election comes around in New Zealand, there does not appear to be one single political party that cares about the 650,000-plus New Zealand citizens who permanently reside in Australia…

“There are thousands of New Zealand citizens here who are eligible to vote… and would cast a vote for a political party that was willing to take note of our unheard voices.”

Those who spoke to Newsroom on behalf of their overseas communities, say the major political parties had not endeared themselves to Kiwi expats during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While these parties did not usually make a concerted effort to court the overseas vote, many expats felt particularly alienated this time.

However, the Green Party usually did well with New Zealanders living in global cities like London, and the party had in the past put slightly more effort into its global campaign than others, Heine said.

The same was true in the lead-up to this year’s election, with the Greens fighting against the introduction of quarantine fees for returning New Zealanders.

The Green Party is one of the only political parties that actively courts the overseas vote. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Green Party immigration spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said New Zealanders living overseas were having a difficult time, facing financial insecurity, and uncertainty about when they could return home.

On top of this, they were facing the real threat of Covid-19, she said. 

Ghahraman said the suggestion all returning Kiwis should have been charged for quarantine showed a lack of compassion by political parties.

“Other parties showed a complete lack of regard for their wellbeing, and were essentially sending a message that if you couldn’t afford quarantine, you couldn’t come home to live.”

Meanwhile, those looking to return home were also rightfully concerned about what they were returning to, Ghahraman said.

In May, New Zealand’s population topped five million for the first time, thanks to the influx of returning Kiwis, a group of Kiwis who were too hesitant to leave the safety of New Zealand, and stranded short-term migrants.

While Covid made it difficult to forecast net migration trends, more New Zealanders were expected to return home in coming months.

“It’s absolutely essential that we have a strong social safety net that ensures people have what they need, including people who are coming home without paid employment lined up,” Ghahraman said.

Leave a comment