Unless New Zealand wants to be a ‘fortress’ it must engage more with Kiwis abroad | Elle Hunt

By Elle Hunt

What makes a New Zealander outside of New Zealand? An accent (which can be lost), or a passport (which can be bought)? Is it a set of irrevocable rights, an identity that anyone can claim and no one can question? Or does it depend on how often you go back?

What if you don’t know when you’ll be home again?

If it seems like a thought experiment, it is one that Jacinda Ardern’s government is under mounting pressure to engage with. For the past 18 months of the pandemic New Zealand has been largely off-limits to international visitors, including those citizens based overseas.

I was lucky to make it back just before Christmas, in the lull before the UK variant stormed the globe. Since then, the barriers to entering Aotearoa from overseas have become immense. Some are necessary to protect public health, and laudable as part of Ardern’s best-practice pandemic response; others are the result of systems and policies that could be refined. All are experienced unevenly in line with social and economic inequality.

But the end result is that New Zealanders overseas – thought to number 1m, at least pre-pandemic – have been prevented from going home, and to some degree by their government. In particular the booking system for hotel quarantine – where demand for rooms far outstrips their availability, though thousands stand empty – has been an ongoing source of frustration.

For months the only way to secure a spot has been to “cheat” by using a bot to refresh the page faster than a person can. This week the government finally responded to criticism, introducing a randomised queue to make booking more transparent and equitable. But as journalist David Farrier found, joining the “virtual lobby” to find 15,000 people in line in front of him – the new system does not address the problem of supply.

Decisions from on high about who to make room for have added to the sense of unfairness. A New Zealand woman in El Salvador with a high-risk pregnancy and limited time left to fly was refused an emergency spot in quarantine six times, and only succeeded after launching legal action against the government. The Wiggles, and the cast and crew of The Lion King stage show had been waved through.

Ardern’s government was right to stop international arrivals early last year, just as it is right to manage them carefully now. But its perceived lack of care and compassion for New Zealanders overseas – plus a heated public debate about their “right to return”, which Ardern has done little to soothe – has led many to feel alienated from their national identity.

Now the question of New Zealand’s relationship to its diaspora is directly at hand, with the government considering whether to affirm under law their claim to the country from afar through the pandemic – or cement them as second-class citizens.

Under the current electoral law, Kiwis based overseas must visit every three years so as to be eligible to vote. (For residents it is 12 months.) Pre-pandemic, this struck about the right balance between recognising their connection to the country, without opening it up to undue influence.

Now, however, going home is not just costly but very nearly out of reach. Many New Zealanders (me among them) were unable to have their say in the previous election, and with border restrictions expected to remain for the foreseeable future, that number will rise. If the law is not changed ahead of the local body elections next year and the general election in 2023, tens of thousands or more may lose their right to vote.

The Herald reports that it would be the largest mass disenfranchisement of New Zealanders since at least 2010, when the National government stripped voting rights from prisoners (overturned by Labour in 2019).

The Greens have been pushing to extend the three-year rule to six years as part of the pandemic response, but justice minister Kris Faafoi has said he intends to be led by the recommendations of a parliamentary inquiry currently underway into the 2020 election. The outcome will be revealing of how New Zealand values its citizens from afar.

The fact is, New Zealand has never before, in modern times, been so removed from the rest of the world as it is now – and that recalibration goes beyond the question of open or closed borders and how long the line for quarantine is to strike at the pillars of our national identity. We have always, for example, prided ourselves on outperforming on the world stage and expanding our horizons with “overseas experiences”.

Unless New Zealand is now to style itself (like Australia) as a “fortress” with a drawbridge that is either up or down, and those inside whose voices matter and those shut out whose don’t – consideration needs to be given to how to engage with Kiwis abroad, even if they aren’t trying to get home.

One way would be for the government to appoint a “minister for the diaspora” as there is in Ireland, where Colm Murphy has been advocating on behalf of citizens overseas and otherwise working to smooth “this period of physical disconnection between the Irish at home and abroad”.

“As we finally get back together in person, I look forward to engaging more directly with our diaspora networks and to welcoming as many of you as possible home,” Murphy said in June: a simple statement of compassion that presents Ireland as the sum of its people – wherever they might be.

Extending voter eligibility could do similar to bring the New Zealand diaspora back into the fold. Of the fabled 1 million Kiwis overseas, only 60,000 voted in the past two elections, suggesting that relaxing the three-year rule would be unlikely to tip the balance of power offshore. But it would be a meaningful statement to send to New Zealanders who can’t be there in person, that they have been counted from afar.