It’s easy to think of Australia and New Zealand as close neighbours and even closer allies, but our policy of deporting New Zealand citizens with criminal records has infuriated Kiwis over the years.
The issue once again reared its head when Jacinda Ardern met Anthony Albanese for the first time since he was sworn in as PM.
“We’ve heard the very clear message from [Ms Ardern] today, as I’ve heard before,” Mr Albanese said after the leaders’ meeting on Friday.
“There could be no argument that the Prime Minister has been very forceful in her views, and we have listened to those views.”
Mr Albanese vowed to consider changes to the deportation policy in order to reset the relationship between the countries.
Ms Ardern said she wants to see the policy amended, not scrapped, and said her position had long been misrepresented in Australia.
“There are some who are being deported from Australia who, for all intents and purposes, are Australian,” she told reporters.
“Often [they have] zero connection to New Zealand. Sometimes not even having stepped foot there.”
In 2020, Ms Ardern called the policy “corrosive” during a heated press conference with Scott Morrison.
She told her Australian counterpart: “Do not deport your people and your problems.”
Where did this come from?
Dr Lara Greaves, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Auckland, said trans-Tasman deportations “have become a compounding issue” over the years.
It began when the Australian government changed section 501 of the Migration Act in December 2014.
This lowered the threshold for people’s visas to be canceled, so that anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in jail or who is a known associate of a criminal organisation will lose their right to stay in Australia.
Since then, Australia has deported more than 2500 Kiwis with criminal convictions.
The country that deported the second-highest number of New Zealand citizens over that same period was the US, sending back just 46 people.
“In New Zealand, for instance, we do not deport individuals who have lived here for 10 years or more,” Ms Ardern said in a statement after the meeting.
Mr Albanese’s election victory provided the New Zealand Prime Minister with a fresh opportunity to make her case.
“After Albanese was announced as the probable prime minister, the first thing that happened in the [New Zealand] media, you saw justice advocates talking about what’s happening with 501 policy,” Dr Greaves told The New Daily.
“That’s the kind of level of a sticking point that it was.”
What is the impact of this policy?
At the time of the 2020 census, about 565,000 New Zealand-born people lived in Australia.
Because there is freedom of movement between the two countries, many Kiwis who have lived in Australia most of their lives have not seen a pressing need to become Australian citizens.
Now, Kiwi media, politicians and even the New Zealand Police Association have flagged the rise of so-called “501 gangs” – motorcycle gangs composed of people deported from Australia.
Kiwis deported from Australia have been convicted of more than 8000 crimes in New Zealand since 2015 – but there’s no concrete evidence linking an uptick in NZ crime to the deportation regime.
New Zealand citizens enjoy freedom of movement in Australia, and vice versa. Photo: Getty
But there is also a separate, human side to the the issue.
Many justice advocates note that some of the deported have only been convicted of minor crimes.
Writing for Kiwi online publication The Spinoff, Sydney-based Māori lawyer Mat Henderson, whose family has been in Australia for generations, explained how this policy disproportionately affects the large Māori community in Australia.
“Many countries deport people who have been convicted of serious offences with no ties to their jurisdiction, but Australia has built up a process that is running on an industrial scale that mainly deals with people with minor offences and who have strong ties to Australian society,” he wrote.
“These deportations destroy families, often penalising the women and children left behind.”
“We get annoyed with you guys, because we like to think that we’ve got a closer relationship,” Alexander Gillespie, a professor of international law at the University of Waikato, told The New Daily.
He said although both countries deport criminals across the Tasman Sea, the higher number of Kiwis in Australia means the practice “upsets us more than it upsets you”.
The issue is now the primary thorn in an otherwise close relationship.
“New Zealand needs to step up and accept responsibility for a certain group of people,” Professor Gillespie said.
“But at the same time, Australia needs to accept responsibility that if someone’s been in your country for say, five years or 10 years – we should settle on a number – and gets convicted of a crime, then you guys should take them as one of yours.”
The trans-Tasman spat also coincides with a drop in Ms Ardern’s approval rating.
The Kiwi Prime Minister won a sizeable majority at the 2020 election – an almost unthinkable feat under the country’s new mixed-member proportional electoral system. She remained fabulously popular for much of the pandemic.
But now opposition parties such as the conservative National Party and the populist party ACT New Zealand have been clawing back support, in part thanks to making 501 deportations a political issue.
“Both of them are starting to hammer her around issues of law and order,” Dr Greaves said.
“We’ve seen a lot of discussion on something like a sort of gang crime wave.”
The next election in New Zealand is expected to be held in 2023.