New Zealanders living in Australia are celebrating a historic win after Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the biggest improvement in the rights of Kiwis living across the ditch in more than two decades.

It comes on the same day Prime Minister Chris Hipkins jets to Brisbane to meet Albanese for the second time in two months, to celebrate the decision and acknowledge the trans-Tasman relationship.

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In 2001 the rules were changed for Kiwis in Australia forcing them onto a temporary visa that allowed them to stay indefinitely but without the rights that come with being a permanent resident or citizen.

The steps involved in becoming a permanent resident and then citizen were not only arduous but also pricey.

Hipkins described the current rules for Kiwis across the ditch as being in a “state of suspended temporariness” which is not what Australians experience when they move to New Zealand.

Albanese’s announcement restores most of those rights and is retrospective, so applies to those who have lived in Australia since 2001 and already meet the criteria for citizenship.

“Kiwis taking up Australian citizenship will still retain their New Zealand citizenship. These dual citizens are not lost to New Zealand – but draw us closer together.” – Chris Hipkins

Once they become citizens, which requires having lived in Australia for four years and meeting the usual standards like a good character check and basic English competency, Kiwis will have access to services and benefits that have until now been out of reach.

The changes will also allow Kiwi children born in Australia to become citizens at birth rather than waiting until they turn 10 as is the case now.

There is no minimum health or income requirement and the rights come into effect from July 1 this year.

Hipkins says Kiwis no longer being kept on a temporary status in Australia by having to hold special category visas will make a “real and meaningful difference” to people’s lives.

“Kiwis taking up Australian citizenship will still retain their New Zealand citizenship. These dual citizens are not lost to New Zealand – but draw us closer together,” he said.

Albanese acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the formal trans-Tasman relationship when announcing the pathway to citizenship and said the changes were a result of a “deep friendship” between the two countries.

It is also a step in the country’s ambition to “build a fairer, better managed and more inclusive migration system”, he said.

“Many New Zealand citizens choose to live and contribute to Australia, so it is reasonable they have the opportunity to become Australian citizens and enjoy the rights and obligations that come from citizenship.”

It’s been a long wait for those impacted by the changes in 2001 and no easy task for successive New Zealand governments.

It was former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her relationship with Albanese that got the deal across the line last year.

Hipkins gets the advantage of its rubber-stamping at a time when Australia has a Labor government in office and the relationship is at the best it has been in years.

Asked by Newsroom whether he was concerned a future Australian government less inclined to offer Kiwis the same rights as its own citizens might simply repeal it, Hipkins dodged.

He said it wasn’t for him to comment on any potential Australian internal political disagreements and he didn’t want to get into the politics of why the change of heart had finally arrived.

But he did note New Zealand leaders had been raising the issue with their counterparts for two decades and it was “fair to say we’ve had a much more open door to these conversations over the last year”.

New data out this week shows deportations have reduced since Albanese and Ardern first met in July last year and the Australian leader promised to adjust the settings.

There are some concerns the policy change will only further encourage Kiwis to move across the ditch at a time when labour shortages are severe.

Hipkins said those choosing to travel to and live in Australia will do so regardless of the policy change, and there is no way to model what impact it might have on migration.

“I don’t think this will significantly change the calculation that New Zealanders will make when it comes to making decisions whether to migrate to Australia.”

It is true that Albanese’s time in office is doing wonders for the rights of Kiwis, with changes to the policy of 501 deportees already starting to show a reduction in the number of people being sent back to New Zealand shores.

The 501 policy has been a trouble spot for years – Ardern described it as “corrosive” to the two countries’ relationship when visiting her former counterpart Scott Morrison in Sydney in 2020.

In February, just a week before Hipkins first visited Australia as Prime Minister, Albanese made a change to the deportation policy.

It required officials to factor in the number of years a New Zealander has lived in Australia when considering deportation.

New data out this week shows deportations have reduced since Albanese and Ardern first met in July last year and the Australian leader promised to adjust the settings.

Fewer than 20 deportations have happened each month in the eight months since that meeting, except for October when 30 were sent back to Kiwi shores.

That’s a noticeable drop given that before July it was rare to have fewer than 30 deportations a month over a period of years.

However, the issue of 501s won’t be a talking point for Hipkins in Brisbane at the weekend given he sees that as a policy matter for Australia and his focus is on better rights for the 700,000 New Zealanders choosing to live across the ditch.

In effect, a better path to citizenship should result in fewer deportations, given New Zealanders living in Australia will have better support and access to services.

While much of Hipkins’ two days in Brisbane will be centred on the milestones between the two countries and the various anniversaries, including the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relationship, there will also be talks on the fringes about the wider geopolitical climate.

Hipkins will have plenty of opportunity to talk with Albanese on Sunday as they attend various events followed by a joint press conference, where questions about whether they discussed Aukus – the security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – are bound to come up.

New Zealand is considering joining the second pillar of Aukus – intelligence and security sharing – and conversations are ongoing as to what that might look like.

Hipkins says the trip isn’t about Aukus but he expects it will be a talking point with Albanese.

There will also be an opportunity to discuss their upcoming joint visit to the Nato leaders’ summit in July, to which both leaders have accepted invitations.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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