Prime Minister Bill English has expressed disappointment over yet another policy change by Australia which could hurt Kiwi expats, saying the close relationship between the two countries seems to be unravelling.
English is dispatching Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee across the ditch for his first official trip, in an attempt to get to the bottom of current uncertainty about the status of New Zealanders in Australia.
Just last week, English was forced to seek an assurance from Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull that immigration policy changes would not affect a special “pathway to citizenship” for Special Category Visa (SCV) holders announced only last year.
Now, tertiary education sector reforms mean some Kiwis will lose access to subsidised university fees.
A government paper outlining the changes said they would resolve an “anomalous situation” where many Australian permanent residents and New Zealand citizens received fee subsidies but were not eligible for student loans, “presenting a significant barrier to higher education for many students”.
The changes mean all Kiwi students will be able to receive a loan, but could lead to significant increases for courses.
As an example, expat lobby group Oz Kiwi said the annual cost of an arts degree at the University of Melbourne would jump from $6,349 to $24,448, with a medicine degree rising from $10,596 to $59,968.
However, the changes will not affect student loan changes announced in 2015, allowing SCV holders from New Zealand to access subsidised fees and the loan scheme - provided they arrived in Australia as a child and have lived there for at least 10 years.
“In 2016, approximately 1800 such students accessed these benefits,” the Australian government said.
English told media Turnbull had not informed him of the impending reforms last week, and Brownlee would be tasked with getting to the bottom of the recent change in tone.
The traditionally close relationship between the two countries had started to unravel after visa changes in 2001, and had been replaced by “significant uncertainty” for Kiwi expats.
“In the past, it’s been a common understanding of how we were treating each other’s citizens. Clearly that understanding is changing in Australia, and you can get to have a little discussion about each small step, but we would like to have a discussion about the bigger picture and where we’re headed,” English told reporters on the way to National's Tuesday morning caucus meeting.
However, English ruled out a "mutual arms war” with reciprocal changes for Australians living here, saying that would not be productive.
“We need to avoid the temptation for short-term satisfaction of punishing someone, punishing Australians in New Zealand, in order to have a sensible discussion about the long-term situation for Kiwis in Australia,” he said.
Brownlee said there were about 8000 Kiwis studying in Australia, around 6000 of whom may be affected by the policy change.