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The myth of the "Kiwi dole bludger" is preventing hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders from having equal rights and opportunities in Australia, according to a group staging protest rallies across the country yesterday.
Erina Anderson, co-founder of Iwi in Aus, said debate had been distorted by the widely held belief that "if the rules change, New Zealanders will flood in and sponge off Australia ... It's a complex and deeply misunderstood issue, and the argument constantly gets skewed around benefits."
Iwi in Aus, which organised protests in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and the Gold Coast, has been campaigning for a year for New Zealanders living in Australia to be given citizenship and the vote, as well as access to higher education loans, welfare payments and jobs in the government and military.
Until February 26, 2001, Australians and New Zealanders who crossed the Tasman continued to enjoy rights similar to those at home. But a deal struck by then Prime Ministers Helen Clark and John Howard stripped Kiwis living in Australia of those rights - although they still have to pay tax.
Many of the estimated 300,000 New Zealanders who moved to Australia after that date are suffering hardship. Admitted on "special category" visas, they have no right to disability care, social housing or other welfare benefits. Some say this has created a "permanent underclass" of New Zealanders trapped in a cycle of homelessness and poverty.
Yesterday's Melbourne rally was attended by just 30 protesters, but "a whole lot of people came to wish them luck", Anderson told the Herald. "We know we're not going to start out big, because it's all been grassroots campaigning. We have no political voice, because we can't vote.
"We're ordinary people who are desperate, really. We're all mums and dads and grandparents who can see the bigger picture, the profound effects not just here and now, but on to the lives and futures of our children and grandchildren."
Sixty people attended last night's demonstration in Adelaide, 70 turned out in Perth and in Sydney, 20 braved thunderstorms. A rally was also planned in the Western Australian town of Albany, the last port from which Anzac soldiers sailed to fight in the First World War.
Prime Minister John Key met counterpart Tony Abbott in Sydney this month, and afterwards welcomed Abbott's confirmation that long-term New Zealand residents will be able to get student loans.
But as far as other issues are concerned, Anderson believes Key "isn't fighting our corner".
The legislative changes in 2001 have left New Zealanders unable to become permanent residents - and thus citizens - unless they fulfil the same strict age and skills criteria as anyone else seeking to migrate.
While the special category visa allows them to live and work here permanently, "we can never be part of this country", said Anderson.
"We're not coming over here to get hand-outs. But we'd like to be able to vote. We'd like our kids to be entitled to the same things as other kids. We'd like to know that if we lose our jobs, we're not going to lose our home.
"We pay our taxes the same as everyone else. If they don't want us here, they should stop letting us in so freely."
- by Kathy Marks in Sydney