Flight to familiar territory
By Geoff Cumming
Saturday Sep 13, 2008
The numbers shake our sense of national identity: 800 New Zealanders a week packing up to live in Australia; “permanent” departures topping 80,000 a year _ half of them heading across the Tasman. And most of those leaving, around 70 per cent, are New Zealand-born.
Long-term departures of New Zealand citizens have run at historically high levels in each of the past four years and Australia is taking a growing proportion of them _ nearly 70 per cent in the year ended June 30, compared to 53 per cent five years ago.
In the 2006 Australian Census, 389,465 Australian residents identified themselves as born in New Zealand, equivalent to 9 per cent of our population and 12 per cent of the NZ-born population now living here. The total number of people with New Zealand citizenship living across the Tasman may top 450,000.
Monthly migration figures updated by Statistics NZ are reliable fodder for Opposition MPs who, like clockwork, link them to high taxes and Labour's economic mismanagement. Figures for the year to March 30 were no exception _ National immigration spokesman Lockwood Smith: “The future of this country is fleeing in droves.” For the year ended June 30, the numbers rose again.
But don't forget, says Professor Richard Bedford of Waikato University, around 85 per cent of the population born in New Zealand are still here. About 600,000 NZ-born people are estimated to be living overseas while the 2006 Census counted the NZ-born population living here at 3.26 million.
“I don't have the nervousness that people have that somehow we're going to lose everybody to Australia,” says Bedford, head of the university's population studies centre. “An awful lot of New Zealanders actually like living in New Zealand.
“We have to ask the question: why haven't more of the people born in New Zealand gone to Australia? The stayers are by far the predominant group. It's much too soon to start thinking everybody's going and we're going to be running out of people.”
Past exoduses _ in the late-70s, late-80s and late-90s _ have been linked to New Zealand's relative economic fortunes. But the current wave coincided (until recently) with a period of economic buoyancy and historically low unemployment. Clearly, say the experts, New Zealanders are not being driven out by the state of our economy.
There is the attraction of bigger, cosmopolitan cities with livelier arts scenes and night life. Warmer weather may be one reason why more NZ migrants now head for Queensland than Sydney and Melbourne.
They choose Australia rather than another country because it's easy, close and familiar, says Graeme Hugo: “People really don't miss a beat if they skip across the Tasman, almost everything in daily life is quite similar. There's a lot of overlap in the media and what's on TV.
“New Zealanders tend to hit the ground running. They don't experience language and cultural difficulties, or the covert discrimination that goes on in the labour market. Their qualifications are recognised.”
With no official barriers to transtasman migration, Hugo and Bedford say the flow is more typical of an internal migration.
“A lot of talented people are going over the Tasman for the same reason people go from Taumarunui or Otorohanga to Auckland or Wellington,” says Bedford. “It's where the good jobs are.”
He has retired colleagues who have homes in both countries and divide their time between them equally.
“We have to accept New Zealanders aren't going to be stuck permanently in [here] or permanently in Australia, anymore than they are permanently based in Auckland or Hamilton and not moving backwards and forwards.”
The increase in departures is part of an international trend, although New Zealand is more exposed than other countries because it has a bigger neighbour next door with no immigration restriction and an economy benefitting from a mineral boom.
The outflow will dwindle when Australia's economic expansion stalls _ the cycle has an inverse link with Australia's unemployment rate, says the Labour Department.
Meanwhile, says Bedford: “The only way we're going to stop the labour going to Australia is to request the Australian Government to stop New Zealanders having [automatic] access to Australia _ and that's not going to happen.”
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