Recently I attended a citizenship ceremony welcoming new citizens to New Zealand. The new kiwi I was accompanying wasn’t exactly fresh off the boat. My husband Matthew Bannister arrived in this country in 1979. After 37 years, he was finally getting around to becoming a New Zealander.

This was right in the middle of the flag referendum period. (Remember the flag referendum?) Another piece of current news that seems connected up to this story is the increase in migration. Last year we had nearly 60,000 new migrants – that’s 5000 per month. (This explains the exponentially increasing congestion on Auckland’s motorways.) You have to be a permanent resident for five years before you can apply to become a citizen. According to the Department of Internal Affairs, 27,947 people were granted New Zealand citizenship in 2014.

The citizenship ceremonies are monthly events in Hamilton and other major New Zealand cities.

tui in flax

Two things I love about New Zealand: a tui enjoying flax. Photo by Dani Edwards.

The official letter said new citizens should wear formal clothing “or national costume”. Matthew refused point-blank to wear a kilt. Despite being born in Aberdeen, he doesn’t see himself as a Scot. His parents were Sassenachs. (I’ve got more Scottish ancestry than he has – my mother’s father’s mother was a Geddes.) So he dug his semi-respectable jacket out of the cupboard, cleaned the Waikato mud off his shoes, brushed his hair and we set off.

Positively George St

That’s Matthew in the middle, long before I knew him: he wrote Positively George St about his experiences as a musician in Dunedin in the early 1980s. (I’m not in it.)

Filling out the forms

The citizenship ceremony was the final step in a long process that took something like six months and cost $470.20, which was a big reason why Matthew had never done it before. He had to fill out the form, get copies of his birth certificate and our marriage certificate verified by a local JP. And then he had to write a letter confessing to all of his speeding tickets (ouch!) and any other misdemeanours in the last 37 years. That was the hardest part, worse than the money.

The ceremony was in the Hamilton City Council premises, in a large, airy reception room with windows looking out on Garden Place. Despite living in Hamilton for nearly ten years, I’d never been in it.

A global citizen

This was the first citizenship ceremony I’ve attended. I’ve never needed to apply for citizenship. I was blessed (or cursed) at birth, with three nationalities – New Zealand, British, from my father, and United States, from my mother.

Some people have suggested to me that it’s useful to have multiple nationalities, but it’s meant I have had to work very hard to develop a sense of cultural identity and belonging. (That’s one of the main themes of this blog.) I’m a New Zealander by choice. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to stay in New Zealand and make it my home.

Matarangi beach

A beach with no people on it – just one of the things I love about New Zealand.

My parents emigrated (separately) to New Zealand in the 1950s. My father was a lifelong Englishman in exile – I don’t think his heart was in this country, although he’s buried here. (Unlike Matthew’s father, who asked us to take his ashes back to Lancashire.) My mother loved New Zealand, but didn’t get citizenship until she was obliged to, when she got a job in the public service. It was a legal requirement in the late 1970s. After “swearing allegiance to a foreign power” she had to fight hard to keep her US passport.

It’s optional

Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker made the point that becoming a New Zealand citizen is a matter of choice. There are not many special benefits of being a citizen of this country. Permanent residents have almost the same benefits – although their legal status is different.

When I mentioned that my husband had become a citizen, some people said “Why?” Some were foreign nationals who’d been in New Zealand for decades.

One woman said “Oh yes, my son is going the other way – he’s in the process of applying for British citizenship.” It was necessary in order to get a mortgage in the UK.

Many people seemed to have the attitude that it was only worth applying for New Zealand citizenship if there was a clear financial benefit.

In most nations worldwide, you have to be a full citizen in order to vote, to own property, to borrow money, to access education, health benefits and social services. But in New Zealand you are entitled to all these things as soon as you’re a permanent resident. A current media theme is the plight of New Zealanders in Australia who have been there for years and haven’t bothered to get citizenship.

Are we too casual about New Zealand citizenship?

Winston Peters pointed out the odd situation of non-citizens being able to vote in the flag referendum. I actually agree with him on that one. The national flag is a sacred symbol of national identity. I think it was inappropriate that people who don’t have a solid stake in New Zealand, who haven’t committed to being citizens, should have been able to vote to change the flag. It was one of the many things about the flag referendum process that was handled badly.

The value of NZ citizenship

For most of New Zealand’s history as a nation we have needed migrants to keep our workforce going. We’re happy that people come here and stay here, and we don’t insist that they become citizens. There’s a perception that this is not a desirable place to live. People come and go.

But I think we are selling ourselves short. In the 21st century New Zealand citizenship is actually regarded as prestigious and valuable by the rest of the world. The New Zealand passport is one of the most valuable internationally (just after Britain, Finland and Sweden), giving visa-free access to 168 countries.

We are a small, beautiful, peaceful, uncrowded, relatively unpolluted country with a clean reputation internationally. And our (relative) political independence and distance from the northern hemisphere means that (so far) we have been free from terrorism. France is the only nation that has tried terrorism in New Zealand (1985, the Rainbow Warrior bombing in Auckland Harbour) and the French agents were dobbed in by local people and caught by the New Zealand police force.

Waikato River

Something else I love about New Zealand: the Waikato River. And tree ferns.

Only since 1949

Before 1949 there was no such thing as a New Zealand citizen. People born in New Zealand were British subjects. Canada created its own citizenship in 1947 and New Zealand and Australia followed in 1949.

Most people born in Niue, the Cook Islands and Tokelau are also New Zealand citizens. Samoans have to apply for citizenship, but they have special status.

NZ citizenship – the advantages

Here’s what you get for being a New Zealand citizen: You can run for Parliament. And you can run for New Zealand in the Olympics, or be an All Black, or in one of the other national sports teams. I know someone whose citizenship was fast-tracked when they were selected for the Olympic judo team.

And you get a New Zealand passport.

If you’re only a permanent resident and you get in trouble with the law, you will probably be sent back to where you came from.

The government book Choice: The NZ citizenship story says that the legal difference between citizens and permanent residents is that citizens are recognised by law as having an enduring right to be in New Zealand, whereas permanent residents have been granted the right to reman indefinitely in New Zealand, but may lose their status if they travel outside New Zealand without a returning residents’s visa or if the visa expires while they are overseas.

Living on Dreams

Sixty-four new citizens and something like 100 friends and family members flocked quietly into the Garden Place reception room. There were people of many ethnic backgrounds in colourful costume. No kilts though.

Music in Maori language was playing quietly on the sound system. At the front of the room the New Zealand flag and Hamilton’s coat of arms were prominently displayed. Rampant pukekos!! Appropriate for a region that is largely drained swampland.

Hamilton city coat of arms

The Hamilton City coat of arms: Rampant pukekos.

Suddenly, a screen slid down in front of the flag and we watched promotional films about Hamilton – the river restoration project, Te Awa, the zoo, the Gardens, and information about various “sponsors”. In the background Barry Saunders was singing “Living on Dreams”.

Then we were addressed (via the screen) by the Governor-general, Sir Jerry Mataparae. “We appreciate the contribution our new citizens make to the economic, social and cultural life of our nation,” he said. (Note the order of his words.) “New Zealand has many people, but only one citizenry.”

Husband House

Contributing to the cultural life of New Zealand: Husband House (1985) was Matthew’s first record in the local top 20.

After that, the Warratahs belted out “Hands of my Heart.” I hope Barry Saunders is getting lots of royalties from this official sanction.

Next, our very upbeat MC, Kate Hale, introduced the official party: a handful of city councillors, Freedom of the City holder Ted Armstrong, a slew of local MPs and the chair of the Hamilton Multicultural Council. The MPs jostled for space in the front row and the tall National Party reps won out. Not a great look, David Bennett and Tim McIndoe. It would have been more gracious to let the women, older people and shorter people sit in front.

The official kaumatua welcomed us, and then “Mayor Julie” Hardaker took the stage.

“All of us have come on a journey from somewhere to this beautiful country,” she said. Including herself – she’d recently been looking into her own northern European whakapapa.

Swearing allegiance

There were two parts to the ceremony. First the new citizens had to swear allegiance to their new country. They were divided into two groups – the ones who were swearing on the Bible, and the ones who were “merely” affirming their allegiance. The wording was the same, but the first group also said, “So help me God”. I found it somewhat ironic to hear my British-born husband swearing allegiance to the Queen. I suppose it’s too complicated to have different affirmations for different nationalities.

The 64 new citizens filed up to receive their certificates from Mayor Julie. They also received a kowhai seedling and a copy of Choice: The New Zealand Citizenship Story. I counted 18 different countries of origin: Russia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Samoa, Cambodia, China, the Netherlands, the United States, Thailand, Tonga, the UK, Fiji, South Africa, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Romania and Burma.

There was a wide range of ages – from young families, to middle-aged people who looked as though they’d been in New Zealand for several decades, like my darling.

Then we all sang the National Anthem, to a backing track. The English and Maori lyrics were printed on the back of the new citizens’ leaflets. We New Zealand natives were expected to know all the words.

After a blessing from the council’s official kaumatua Tom Pokaia, there was a cup of tea, sausage rolls, and photo opportunities with Mayor Julie (probably with those shameless MPs as well). We didn’t stay, because I had to get to work. I was teaching a class of beginner ukulele players how to play “Po Karekare Ana”.

Matthew Bannister

New citizen: Matthew with his certificate and kowhai seedling.

Making a choice

There’s a lot more to say about New Zealand citizenship, and about choosing to live in Aotearoa-New Zealand. There are some big downsides about living here, such as the small job market, the relatively low wages, the lack of city culture, the huge distance from the northern hemisphere – we’re a few hours’ plane flight from our nearest neighbours.

Many people in my parents’ generation, who came here from other places during the twentieth century, feel very ambivalent about being here in their old age. “New Zealand is a beautiful prison,” lamented one elderly European. But it may take more than one generation to start feeling comfortable in a new country.

My hope is that Aotearoa-New Zealand will be full of people who have made a positive choice to be here. Perhaps formally taking citizenship is a step towards this.