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Immigration figures pose tripwire for Labour

Wednesday 21 May 2014 5:58 p.m.

Australia has lost its attraction for Kiwis - last month just 200 left for the lucky country, the lowest number ever - but migrants coming to New Zealand have hit the highest figure in more than a decade.

Wellington's Westpac Stadium - the Cake Tin as it is affectionately called - holds 34,500 people, mostly for sporting events.

However it has had a political purpose: making a point about the brain drain to Australia.

Prime Minister John Key did it in his 2008 campaign video, saying, "The equivalent of this entire stadium and more leaves every year."

The Labour Party's then-leader David Shearer tried the same last year.

"Today this stadium would not be able to hold the number of people who are leaving," he said.

But the stunts at the stadium are over, as the exodus is curbed, with figures showing just 200 people - an all-time low - left for Australia last month.

"Immigration goes in ebbs and flows but it really is a very positive story people are wanting to stay in New Zealand, and that's a good thing," Mr Key said today.

The annual figure has plummeted too, from 34,100 to 11,000, but the immigration debate is now central to the political fight over house prices.

Because as well as more New Zealanders staying home than ever, more foreigners are moving here too - 71,210 in the last year, the highest in 11 years.

Labour leader David Cunliffe says their arrival comes at the expense of New Zealanders.

"Extra heat on our housing market drives up interest rates and exceeds the capacity of our education and health systems to cope," he says.

Net migration is the crucial overall figure, which shows population growth is also at a decade high, up to 34,400 in the past year.

Treasury has predicted it could blow out to 41,500, and ANZ economists go higher, predicting 45,000.

Labour says the past ideal was just 5,000 to 15,000.

Labour is clearly loathe to set a target at this point - it is treading very carefully because while a call to curb immigration could be both practical and popular, it also runs the risk of being accused of dog-whistle politics or xenophobia.

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