03/20/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/19/2015 05:59 EDT

Free Movement Between Canada, U.K., Australia And New Zealand Unlikely

A proposal to allow for the free movement of people between Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and Australia might be an interesting idea, but don’t expect to see a change any time soon.

Such a system would require hammering out details beyond simply removing visa and work permit restrictions.

The idea seems popular based on the reaction to a story posted earlier this week outlining the goal of the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization. Out of 67,000 people who voted in a poll attached to the story, more than 90 per cent said they were in favour of the idea.

An online petition from the organization — which advocates for unrestricted travel between the countries based on similar political, cultural, historic and linguistic ties — has garnered more than 50,000 signatures.

“I think it’s an intriguing proposal, but I think chances are it will be some years in the making if it’s ever to be realized,” said Emily Gilbert, an associate professor who teaches Canadian studies and geography at the University of Toronto.

“So I don’t know where the political will would be coming from to get this going.”

Gilbert said allowing greater mobility is a worthy goal, but much depends on the specifics of the agreement between the countries.

Would immigrants automatically gain permanent resident status or have full access to citizenship rights, for example, beyond simply having the right to work and stay indefinitely?

“If they were to move ahead with this, that is what would be worked out, and the devil is in the details,” she said.

Jeffrey Reitz, from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said the chance of seeing such an “eccentric” agreement between the four countries is effectively zero.

He said it’s unclear why Canada would pursue a proposal with New Zealand, Australia and U.K. instead of the U.S. and Mexico, countries that are already part of a free trade agreement. Or why not a proposal to loosen travel between all 53 Commonwealth countries?

Reitz, director of ethnic, immigration and pluralism studies at the Munk School, also said it would likely generate accusations of racial or cultural bias.

“I doubt that there would be enough support that the energy behind it would be sufficient to withstand the criticism brought forward,” he said.

Similar political, legal systems

James Skinner, founder and executive director of the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization, was optimistic that an agreement could be reached, pointing to the petition to show the level of support for the proposal.

Skinner also rejected the notion that there is a racial element in the decision to include only Canada, U.K., New Zealand and Australia over other Commonwealth countries.

The countries have the same head of state and language and similar parliamentary and common law legal systems, he said. They also are highly developed economies with positive human rights records.

“This has nothing to do with race,” he said.

The free movement agreement would draw upon the European Union and the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement between Australia and New Zealand for direction.

However, Skinner said, there would be no plans to form a political union between the four countries.

He said he will send the petition to politicians in New Zealand and Australia, and then to the Canadian and British governments, pending elections in each respective country.

Implementation would also likely be slow.

The organization suggests an agreement could be first reached between just two countries before bringing in the other two.

Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the government is always looking for ways to facilitate trade and travel between Commonwealth nations, but she would not speculate on future changes.

Nationals from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand can already travel to Canada without a visitor visa provided they meet the following criteria:

- Have a valid travel document, such as a passport.

- Are in good health and do not pose a health risk.

- No criminal record.

- Enough money to support themselves while in Canada.

'An interesting discussion'

Harald Bauder, academic director of the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement in Toronto, said he was in favour of loosening travel restrictions.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It gets an interesting discussion going and one that we need to have.”

Allowing people to travel unrestricted between the four countries for work would also require an agreement on how they could access social benefits. 

"Free movement doesn’t mean much if social entitlements don’t come with it," he said. 

Although the agreement would allow for unrestricted travel for residents of the four countries, it could also have an effect on the flow of people from areas outside of the free movement zone as the four countries harmonize immigration rules, Bauder said.

“What could happen is that the four countries agree on the lowest common denominator and it would be even more restrictive,” he said.

That is a concern Gilbert shares.

She said a free movement agreement could increase the number of travellers from the four countries, pushing governments to limit the number of immigrants accepted from everywhere else.

“I would hate to see the free movement of citizens across the four countries be an excuse for adopting even harsher immigration policies,” she said. 

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