It was always the interest on the student loans that was the kicker, leaving those on lower incomes to simply tread water with little hope of paying down the capital (and god forbid you ever took time off to have children). So it seems churlish to find anything objectionable about the interest write-off. But there’s a massive flaw in Labour’s otherwise tasty little election lollipop: it baldly discriminates against those who head overseas after graduation.
Yep, the interest will be wiped only for those who stay in New Zealand (and those who arrive back during a fixed amnesty period next year). Leave the country, and what’s that ticking sound? Your loan racking up again. Pretty ironic when it's the loans that drive so many of us overseas in the first place.
You can see why politicians might not want to look like they are subsidizing a generation's OE (and, after Keith's daunting calculations, why Labour might not risk expanding the write-off to everyone). But do they really think New Zealand would be a better place if nobody ever left?
I thought we’d already fought and won this battle: the idea that flying kiwis are not a liability, but an asset. Not a bug, as it were, but a feature. An immutable element of our particular culture, and of our place in the world. More than that: our secret weapon, a global network of hooked-in New Zealanders busily making things happen.
But no. Long after we all thought the phrase “brain drain” had been scrapped in favour of a more realistic notion – a brain exchange, say, which ultimately works to make New Zealand very smart -- Labour is resurrecting the phrase to explain why only those who stay home will get a break.
Suddenly it’s 1996 all over again... Ooh, help, there’s a brain drain! Someone fix it! Someone get a plug! It’s all running down the plughole and leaking out into places like Harvard! Yale! Oxford! Crikey! It’s out of control! Running restaurants in London and supervising elections in Liberia! Making wine in Argentina and teaching physics in Connecticut! Selling pies in New York and chocolate cheese in Taiwan! Oh my god! Make it stop! Or… or… New Zealanders will get a global reputation for being clever, adaptable, well-connected, and nice! HELP!
No disrespect at all to the many awesome grads who stay in town and get on with things (my baby brother and sister included). You’re national treasures, and it’s a great choice. Frankly, without you guys, there’d be nothing for the rest of us to come back to. But why send the passport-wielders to the naughty chair?
Thing is, I started out just feeling offended on behalf of those who leave in search of more education, to become fluent in other languages and cultures, or to gain skills that are just not available in this country. That’s a demographic close to my heart, because I’m in it; and even though some of us end up being away far longer than we intended, we’re sick of being seen as a net loss to New Zealand.
But then I realized that focusing on the smartypants scholarship kids like myself was just setting up a class system all over again, no better than the Home vs. Away schema. Look, it shouldn’t matter a tinker’s cuss why you go. Just as it shouldn’t matter why you stay. You simply can’t tell in advance who’s going to morph into a national asset while winging it in London, just as you can’t tell who’s going to be a wash-out despite staying close to the home fires in an apparently solid job. The trick is to assume that we’re all worth it, wherever we are.
Whereas the implicit message of the interest write-off is that staying home somehow makes you a better New Zealander -- and going deserves a serious slap on the wrist.
It’s like a tax on gumption, in whatever form it takes.
So you go overseas just wanting to have fun and see the world: visit the pyramids, get wasted in eighteen European capitals in fourteen days, shag someone whose language you don’t speak, blah blah Kon-Tiki blah blah work in a bar? Instant fun tax on you lot. And wipe that grin off your faces, you lucky bastards. We don’t all get to visit the pyramids, get wasted in eighteen European capitals etc.
Or you’re one of the clever-clogs who actually want to work in the field you qualified in, and earn pounds or dollars while doing so. Accounting, journalism, law, medicine, working for the UN? Bloody hell, can’t have that. You might actually learn something on the job, give New Zealand a good name into the bargain, and god knows it’ll pay down the loan faster. Wanker tax on you guys for being so bloody savvy. And dressing so well. Bastards.
Maybe you want to spend time finding out about your heritage before settling into life. Visit your aging grannies, track down the family history, see the country your parents were lucky to escape when you were just a baby, view Godzone from the outside for a bit before settling back in to raise happy little vegemites. That’ll be a knowing-where-you-come-from tax on you cosmopolites. You're probably multilingual too, multiculturally adept – quelle horreur!
As for all you artists, dancers, writers, actors, who are so damn talented that you’re in demand all over the world. Finally getting some work out of that Drama School degree? A fancypants tax on you for daring to work for food in a place other than New Zealand. Come home and starve among your own people, you cowards.
And the ones who are hooking up with Volunteer Service Abroad or other humanitarian projects, building hospitals, immunizing desperately poor kiddies, tidying up after tsunamis, saving the Amazon from deforestation, that sort of thing? Well, clearly you’re not thinking about the money at all, so a silly tax on you guys for having a non-monetary bottom line, although I bet you never thought you’d hear a Labour government say that.
Then there are my people. The ones who leave the country in search of further education, and experience that’s just not available in New Zealand. Especially those who have to, in order to gain or consolidate skills in their field. Landed the golden opportunity to do a PhD somewhere excellent? Studying other languages and cultures? Just an excellent scientist in search of equipment and mentors? Well haha, a girly swot tax on you lot for being such a bunch of show-offs. And don’t come crawling back to us for decent jobs in well-funded universities, because... well, just because. Go away, you’re embarrassing us. Please?
Let’s start all over again. Writing off the interest is a lovely idea (and campaign-wise, it leaves National’s policy, which has its own merits, in the dust). Framing the write-off as an incentive to stick around is also a lovely idea. Who doesn’t want to feel welcome?
But this is like a welcome mat with a flip side reading “bugger off.” And this one risks saying “bugger off” to the only people who might in fact be thinking about doing precisely that – the ones who already have temporarily buggered off.
Perhaps in a convoluted way, the interest is meant to act as a sort of a bond; if you’re paying more to stay away, it will make you want to race home all the faster. But the overseas cohort is already paying in all sorts of ways (local tax, missing our families), and the bond is there regardless.
You could even argue that the student loan has become as significant a part of youth identity as the big OE. At the funeral of Shelley Mather, who was killed (tragically, horribly, pointlessly) by one of the Underground bombers last month, a family friend described her thus: “With her New Zealand flag, her Tim Tams, and her student loan, she was a true Kiwi girl.”
Precisely. We’re always here, even when we’re not. We’re all paying off the loans, wherever we are. And we’re always coming back. Even when we can’t. We’re all in it together. Give us a break?