As Australia rolls towards the polls this Saturday, election talk is everywhere: seeping into cafes, dining rooms and cold nights at the pub.
While public confidence in the schoolyard barbs and robotic debates of the main party leaders is dubious, there’s still a feverish expectation in the air. Or maybe it’s just the promise of Australia’s traditional election fare, the Democracy Sausage.
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But for the hundreds and thousands of New Zealanders living and working in Australia – myself included – the chatter falls short. Because none of us can vote.
There are an estimated 650,000 New Zealanders living in Australia under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement, which supports the free movement of Australians and New Zealanders across the Pacific.
A lost road to citizenship
Traditionally, the agreement meant New Zealanders and Australians could live and work in either country and receive the same benefits; cementing the shared history, culture and values between the countries.
Australians moving to New Zealand can still vote after one year, receive welfare after two, and become citizens after five.
But after increasing numbers of Kiwis crossed the ditch, fears of New Zealanders simultaneously stealing jobs and lapping up welfare turned public sentiment against them.
After increasing numbers of Kiwis crossed the ditch, fears of New Zealanders simultaneously stealing jobs and lapping up welfare turned public sentiment against them.
The Howard-led Australian government tweaked the arrangement in 2001, blocking a clear pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders. Since then, New Zealanders entering Australia have been granted Special Category Visa (SCV) status.
Essentially guest workers, Kiwis are considered permanent residents for tax purposes, but without access to government benefits, student loans or the ability to apply for citizenship.
It’s estimated that 250,000 to 350,000 New Zealanders living and working in Australia since 2001 are subject to these limitations.
The instability of this “guest worker” status was highlighted last year, as hundreds of New Zealanders with criminal records were detained and deported after a change to the Migration Act, which saw the visas of low as well as high-level offenders revoked.
“It is a human rights issue,” New Zealand Labour MP Kelvin Davis told me in November.
“Some people […] have come across as babies: they’ve been educated in Australia, they’ve found work in Australia, they’ve married and had children and grandchildren in Australia. They consider themselves Australian; they just happen to be officially New Zealand citizens.”
Snubbed by democracy
Recently, an additional pathway to citizenship has been announced for New Zealanders living in the country for five years or more, to be introduced in July 2017.
But with the required minimum income capped at AUD$53,900 for each of those five years, many Kiwis – especially students, those on unstable wages and new business owners – will still miss out.
The Department of Immigration estimates that only 60,000 to 70,000 New Zealanders on “special” visas will be eligible for the new pathway.
While vocal support from politicians is growing, the silencing of New Zealanders on election day still stings.
“[P]ermanent residents should be given full voting rights just as any Australian citizen,” argued Election Watch deputy editor Heath Pickering last week, referring to New Zealanders on SCVs as well as the more than one million permanent residents in Australia. “The prejudice against enfranchising non-citizen residents sits in stark contrast to democratic principles.”
While restricting voting to citizens is considered “reasonable” by human rights law, non-citizen voting has long been acknowledged as valuable for social cohesion and nation-building, especially since European unification in the 1960s.
While restricting voting to citizens is considered 'reasonable' by human rights law, non-citizen voting has long been acknowledged as valuable for social cohesion and nation-building...
In New Zealand, permanent residents as well as Australians, Tokelauans, Niueans and Cook Island Maori can vote after one year. Even during Brexit, anyone from a Commonwealth country such as Australia and New Zealand could register to vote while residing in the UK. Meanwhile, every EU citizen has the right to vote in another EU country.
That such an arrangement isn’t in place for New Zealanders in Australia, where many have lived, worked and paid taxes for decades, seems more suggestive of nasty employer relations than the chummy “sibling rivalry” portrayed by media and politicians.
Advocacy group Oz Kiwi have advised New Zealanders unable to vote to discuss their situation with politicians at the polls, but others are less hopeful.
“She has my vote! That is once I can become [an] Oz citizen and vote!” commented one New Zealander in response to a speech from Australian Labor Party MP Clare O’Neil. Another added: “She’d get my vote… oh that’s right, we can’t!”
Even more cutting is the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme on July 1, a day before elections. While New Zealanders are obliged to pay a levy in their taxes towards the scheme, they can’t claim it. And because their children aren’t granted citizenship until their tenth birthday, families that desperately need help won’t get it either.
In a column last year for New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times, MP Phil Goff wrote how “Australians like to tell us they’re our best mates [… but] sometimes, to be frank, it just doesn’t feel like that.
“Kiwis living long-term in Australia aren’t getting a fair go.”
This coming election holds a bitter taste for many Kiwis; and it’s a taste that sits oddly against the celebrated Democracy Sausage, and the promises of a country that will tease but not take them.
Megan Anderson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.