The Commonwealth Exchange report proposes greater bilateral mobility between commonwealth countries.
With an invigorating foreword by London Mayor Boris Johnson, the report recommends establishing mobility zones between the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The report argues for so-called “Boris bilaterals” which would be modelled on the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (TTTA) between Australia and New Zealand.
“It seems that almost all parts of the Commonwealth are brimming with a new energy and optimism at precisely the time that the European Union is struggling,” Mr Johnson wrote in his foreword.
Tim Hewish, executive director of Commonwealth Exchange and author of the report, believes New Zealand’s two-year wait for welfare provisions and five-year wait for eligibility to citizenship appear “sensible ideas that the UK may wish to replicate.”
However, Mr. Hewish admits there is little chance of change to come before the UK general election in May 2015.
Was the Commonwealth neglected in favour of the EU?
Last year, Boris Johnson became outraged at the case of the young Australian teacher, who was forced to return to Australia. Boris reckoned this example highlighted the way in which the UK has become overly Euro-centric at the cost of its Commonwealth cousins.
“In spite of all her efforts she has been effectively kicked out of Britain. What is her crime? That she isn’t French. Nor is she German, or Polish, or Croat, or Italian, or Greek, or Portuguese. In 1973 [when Britain joined the EU] we betrayed our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand […] it was assumed that in order to be internationalist it was enough to be European. Well, it is perfectly obvious in 2013 that this is no longer enough and we need to seek a wider destiny for our country.”
Indeed, the report claims that the UK government’s inability to regulate EU immigration has ultimately led to tougher policies aimed at migrants from other countries, including Commonwealth countries.
Bonds that transcend distant geography
The Mayor of London, who rarely misses a chance to quote Winston Churchill, deliberated in the report on why the Commonwealth is as relevant for the UK today as it was in the days of empire.
“In 2013 I visited Australia and was reminded of the myriad enduring bonds between ‘the English-speaking peoples’, to use Churchill’s phrase. I was also struck by the strength of the Australian economy. A year previously I had been in India, marveling at its economic growth and yet wondering why Britain’s share of Indian trade remains so relatively small.
“The UK has bonds of history, language, law, family and customs across the world and we would be foolish not to make more of these at this time of profound global economic revival.”
However, in terms of immigration levels to the UK, the aforementioned ‘bonds of history’ appear to have been diminishing quickly. Annual immigration from Commonwealth nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – peaked at 73,000 in 2004 and by 2011 the figure stood at a measly 29,000.
In response to the report, Prime Minister John Key said he would welcome the development of Commonwealth mobility but remained skeptical about the chance of success especially because immigration is, after all, such a politically polarising issue in Britain.
“They’ve got a general election in May next year and I think it’s going to be very challenging to see much progress in that area,” Mr Key said.
But if the idea was to gain political and public support, these mobility zones could open up many doors of opportunity for New Zealand.
Would New Zealand benefit from Commonwealth mobility?
The first concern for many Kiwis and Aussies would be the swarm of Britons who might be tempted – in a heartbeat – to pack their bags and head to the sunny shores of Australia or the nature-jammed suburbs of New Zealand, where a better bang-for-your-buck and, arguably, a greater living standard and lifestyle awaits many.
The mobility zones would have to be reciprocal two-way streets, but the UK population of 63 million doesn’t quite mirror that of Australia (23 million) or New Zealand (4.5 million), creating inherent imbalances from the onset.
Inevitably, many wannabe British immigrants to NZ would want to move to Auckland – which could worsen an already under-supplied housing market there. But many of them would also bring along wealth, education, business knowledge as well as their UK contacts, which would encourage economic growth and trade.
Meanwhile the question of assimilation would be as easy as a trip to Waitangi and a game of beach rugby. In almost all cultural categories, Kiwis and Brits share a strong common bond. To a slightly lesser extent, the same would apply to Canadians.
For those individual Kiwis, who would journey across to the UK or Canada, they would only be spoiled for choice in where they could start their careers or do business or raise a family or retire. However, for young Kiwis in particular, there is a lot to gain from Commonwealth mobility.
Working in the UK presents itself with opportunities that simply can’t be matched in New Zealand – especially for graduates: financial hubs, long-established non-profit and public institutions, international organisations and businesses, corporation headquarters, global media hubs and much more. If one is professionally minded, to gain experience at a young age in a metropolis such as London is simply invaluable.
Nevertheless, under the current visa restrictions, if you are unable to gain an ancestor visa or a high-skilled working visa, the current two-year Youth Mobility Scheme is your only visa option. For those who utilise the scheme as a base for travel in Europe or for an OE working in a pub the scheme is set-up perfectly.
However, for those graduates searching for a breakthrough in their careers, the two-year restriction is a genuinely burdensome. Many top-end employers want to hire – and effectively invest – in a graduate for three to five years.
Considering the disadvantages of the status quo and the likely benefits of such an ambitious new scheme, New Zealand would be mad not to embrace the Commonwealth Exchanges argument. If Boris, and those who are like-minded, continue to push and promote Commonwealth mobility, then the UK public and political class may soon see what Boris sees: a win-win policy.