When news broke that New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key had taken Australia to task over the treatment of his country’s citizens, it was probably the first time many people learned of the way New Zealanders in Australia are treated and the precarious position they contend with.

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Prime Minister Key is specifically unhappy with our Government for imprisoning and deporting New Zealand citizens with criminal records, even though many of these people have been living, working and part of communities in Australia for most of their lives.

The limbo New Zealanders in Australia live in flies against what we imagine is a “special relationship” between the two countries, and Key used this language in his appeal to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

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Australian school children are still routinely taught the ANZAC story, we still celebrate our kinship and shared history through a national holiday, and the centenary of ANZAC was recently marked with much fanfare.

But this version of our relationship when measured against the facts is revealed to be a wistful nostalgic fantasy. According to the laws of our land, this “special relationship” does not exist and there have been some appalling, shocking consequences of this absence of closeness and respect between Australia and New Zealand.

Take the case of Junior Togatuki as a terrible case in point. 

Junior came to live in Australia as a child aged four from New Zealand. A fortnight ago he died in custody, in an Australian detention centre where he had been locked up and was awaiting deportation to a country he had not lived in for almost 20 years. He was only 23 years old.  

The case has sparked global outrage and has exposed the inequity and precarity that New Zealanders living, working and participating in our communities are forced to manage. New Zealanders working in Australia, paying taxes and contributing to our society are never able to automatically access citizenship.  And they are exposed and vulnerable to particular kinds of bad treatment.

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The policy to lock up New Zealand citizens and deport them for having criminal records is heavy-handed and perverse when considering that for so many Australia has been their home for most of their lives.

The awful consequences of this disenfranchisement also means that women and children have been unable to access emergency housing when escaping family violence. This is disgraceful, particularly as Australia finally faces up to the need to act to eliminate the scourge of family and gendered violence, and recognises that women need to be able to access help and safe places.

The reason that this has been allowed to happen is because in 2001 then Prime Minister John Howard made changes to the Trans Tasman Travel Agreement which removed automatic pathways to citizenship and access to HECS, voting rights and social services (amongst other things).

This change has left New Zealanders without rights, even though they pay taxes and work hard.

And this change is unequal. Australians in New Zealand still get to enjoy voting rights, pathways to citizenship and access to social services.

We have many New Zealand citizens as members in our National Union of Workers sites, and being treated equally and having an automatic pathway to citizenship is important to them.

We’ve started campaigning on this issue and the hard work of our members has led to the Australian Labor Party committing to address this issue, with policy passed at the recent National Conference.

The terrible treatment of New Zealanders in detention centres and in our communities must end.

Prime Minister John Key has alerted the world that, right now, the ANZAC legend is a hollow myth and a dangerous one. The ANZAC fantasy has obscured the deadly treatment New Zealanders are subjected to, but there is hope that things can change.

Sam Roberts is National Union of Workers’ General Branch Secretary.

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