Rise in uni fees increases strain on trans-Tasman relationship

1:03 pm on 3 May 2017

Power Play - The traditional relationship between New Zealand and Australia is under severe strain, as the Prime Minister questions the very fabric of the trans-Tasman bond.

Australian High Commission, New Zealand.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

On several occasions in the last few years New Zealand has had to go begging to Australia for information about policy changes that significantly impact New Zealanders resident in Australia

The latest incident is a policy that will significantly increase tertiary fees for New Zealanders studying in Australia, while giving them access to student loans.

This will be discussed between Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Gerry Brownlee when they meet tomorrow - his first overseas call as Foreign Minister.

Bill English does not want to quibble about individual policy changes, but does want to hear how Australia now views its relationship with New Zealand.

"We've had a set of traditional arrangements where New Zealanders and Australians were treated as citizens of each others' countries.

"That started unravelling in 2002 with John Howard and Helen Clark and decisions that were made then, there's now significant uncertainty about the Australian attitude towards that traditional arrangement."

He was not only unhappy about the tertiary policy itself, but also the fact the Australians gave him no notice about the change.

It was only late last week that Mr English spoke to the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the phone while seeking clarification about a change to Australia's citizenship policy, and no mention was made about the tertiary fees.

And this is just the latest controversy about what many see as punitive and unfair treatment at the hands of the Australian government.

There was furious debate here about Australia's so-called '501s' policy - to detain and deport New Zealanders with criminal convictions regardless of how long they had lived there and their family circumstances.

And depending on when they arrived in Australia, many New Zealanders cannot access social welfare benefits or the National Disability Insurance Scheme, despite paying workplace levies.

Nor can they apply for jobs within the Australian military.

However, those benefits are available to Australians in New Zealand, who in most circumstances have the same rights as New Zealanders - in the spirit of the traditional approach both countries used to take.

As a snapshot, more than a 1000 Australians claimed about $180,000 in benefits here in one week last December - taken over a whole year the cost to New Zealand would be more than $9 million.

In New Zealand, Australian students are subsidised and charged the same fees as New Zealanders.

As of the start of the year, 36 Australians (who were not New Zealand citizens) were members of the New Zealand Defence Force.

'This is not the way we do things between mates'

Government ministers have been asked why New Zealand is not starting to consider removing those entitlements for Australians as the treatment of citizens in the two countries becomes more and more unbalanced.

One consideration is there are hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders in Australia, compared with tens of thousands of Australians here, and Mr English would not want to risk making their situation any worse.

"We prefer to be in a situation where we have a positive relationship with Australia and Kiwis get a good deal in Australia - that's better than mutual 'armed war' to see who can treat each others' citizens worse."

Labour leader Andrew Little favoured a more casual approach.

"I'd be on the blower to Malcolm Turnbull saying 'hey dude' - this is not the way we do things between mates'."

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