Pension win for Pacific countries

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her delegation are welcomed to the Cook Islands at Atupare Marae. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Residents of Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands will be able to access New Zealand pensions more easily, after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the Government would ease residency requirements.

Currently, people from these so-called "realm countries" have to have lived in New Zealand for at least ten years - with five of those years being from the age of 50 - to be eligible to receive New Zealand superannuation.

The requirement to have spent at least five of their ten years of residence living in New Zealand after the age of 50 means many have to leave their countries to meet the criteria, a situation Ardern described as unsatisfactory.

The Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are all part of the Realm of New Zealand, with their people given New Zealand citizenship.

Announcing the changes in Rarotonga, Ardern said it would mean those from the realm countries would not have to uproot themselves to receive New Zealand superannuation.

'An unsatisfactory situation'

"They become members of the community, then they find themselves in a situation where they will be considering leaving their home and their business and their employment to go back to New Zealand for five years to ensure their eligibility," Ardern said.

"Now that is not a situation that we think is satisfactory, either for Niue, Tokelau or the Cook Islands."

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters had raised the issue during coalition talks, Ardern said. It was estimated the change would cost $3.5 million in its first year.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said he was happy the Government had delivered on its support for the changes from its time in opposition.

"They have delivered on their promises, on their support, and it's so wonderful to hear that announcement today."

In 2015, the National government eased pension rules so those from realm countries only had to reside in New Zealand until 55, not 65, before they could receive superannuation.

However, the "50 plus five" rule remained in place.

At the time, Peters made a failed attempt to remove that restriction, arguing many citizens of the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue had spent up to 30 years of their adult life living and working in New Zealand.

"To deny them New Zealand superannuation because they have not spent five years in New Zealand after age 50 is grossly unfair."

Peters contrasted the situation for realm countries with "the generosity of giving full New Zealand superannuation entitlement to non-New Zealand citizens from non-reciprocal pension
countries after just 10 years' residency".

"We appeal to common sense that the realm countries only enjoy the same privilege as other more prosperous pension agreement countries."

During a 2015 visit to the Cook Islands, then-Prime Minister John Key said Peters' proposal would cost too much and be unfair to other Pacific countries.

However, during a pre-election visit in 2017 former Prime Minister Bill English said his government would reconsider the issue.

Late last year, Puna led a delegation to New Zealand to push for changes to pension portability, saying the change of government presented a fresh opportunity to reconsider the issue.

The requirement for superannuitants to have lived in New Zealand for at least 10 years from the age of 20 still remains in place.