Teuila Fuatai: NZ beats Australia on human rights of citizens

OPINION:

Depending on who you talk to, citizenship or nationality will mean different things.

If you’re like me, being a citizen of this country was something that happened by being born. It was a foregone conclusion, decided by the status of my parents.

It meant I never stressed around the have-nots of being without citizenship, and by default, never questioned whether I legally belonged here – even when vitriol targeting Pasifika people suggested otherwise.

During my early 20s, I started to think seriously about where else I could live. After a few years in the adult workforce, spreading my wings was a viable option. Just next door, Australia had the offerings of a bigger place while being close to home.

It was about then I started to think about what citizenship represented. More precisely, what living as a New Zealander in Australia could mean. Would it be cool living in Australia surrounded by Australians? What would I miss about living here? And is it just a bigger, louder version of New Zealand?

Further to the perceived cultural differences were the practicalities of life as a non-Australian. In 2001, the then-Australian government ushered in laws severely limiting the access of New Zealanders over there to welfare. By the time I was considering a move abroad, there had been a steady stream of stories detailing those who’d moved across the Tasman, run into hardship and were without a much-needed safety net. The contradiction in their treatment and that of their Australian counterparts living in New Zealand had become a firm reality in the transtasman relationship.

In trying to get us to understand the “rights and obligations citizenship confers”, the UN lists what we often take for granted in places like Australia and New Zealand. “Most of us can enrol our children in schools, seek medical attention when we are sick, apply for employment when we need to, and vote to elect our representatives in government,” it says. “We feel we have a stake in the country in which we live; we feel a profound sense of belonging to something greater than our individual selves.”

That concept can seem pretty abstract if you’ve never been close to having these life-regularities threatened. Indeed, when I think about my interest and sense of belonging in New Zealand, it’s about what we could be doing to improve things like access to medical services, inequities in the school system, processes around honouring Te Tiriti and the list goes on. The conversation revolves around how to uphold these rights for specific communities being short-changed, rather than how to make them harder to reach for certain people.

It’s also an area where our close ties with Australia become difficult to navigate. Layered in their unrelenting attitude towards refugees and asylum seekers, shortcomings in their own areas of indigenous rights, as well as positives like higher wages, are the policies limiting New Zealanders’ access to basics like welfare in times of need.

It’s the main reason why, about 10 years ago, I applied for my Australian citizenship (I’m eligible as one of my parents is an Australian citizen). I was apprehensive that in moving away, even to a country so close in proximity and culture, I would be unable to access help if I needed it. In hindsight, it’s an incredibly shallow and reductive way of thinking about citizenship. But it’s a moment that resurfaces whenever there’s discussion around the rights of citizens and non-citizens in Australia. As we saw last week in the case of Suhayra Aden and her two young children, it’s a very real sliding scale of civil rights across the ditch.

Public declarations from each of our respective Prime Ministers reflected a huge difference in attitude towards those often deemed most undesirable by society. For this dual citizen, it was a reminder that New Zealand has a far more mature and ethical outlook around its responsibilities to citizens, and that belonging on paper to a country doesn’t always equate to a similar feeling of personal investment.

And for the record, I never ended up living in Australia.

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