New Zealand opposition to slash immigration by almost half if it wins September election

A passenger plane lands at Auckland International Airport on July 23, 2007.
A passenger plane lands at Auckland International Airport on July 23, 2007. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand's main opposition party on Monday (June 12) announced plans to almost halve immigration numbers if it wins a September election, with the clampdown focused on international students.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little said it was "time for a breather on immigration" in the nation, which has experienced record annual net arrivals of about 70,000 in recent years.

Little said his centre-left party would cut that by up to 30,000 a year, including slashing an estimated 22,000 student visas.

He said the nation of 4.5 million could not cope with existing migration levels.

"It's contributed to the housing crisis, put pressure on hospitals and schools and added to congestion on roads," he said.

Little said parts of New Zealand's international education sector had become a "back door to residency", which he planned to close if he won the Sept 23 national election.

Under the plan, visas for many "low value" courses that do not involve at least a bachelor's degree would be cut.

Work visas for international students and recent graduates would also be tightened to stop them taking low-skilled jobs unrelated to their course.

Prime Minister Bill English said the policy would have a major impact on the economy, which is growing at a relatively strong three per cent annually.

"Slashing immigration - whatever you think of it - slashing it when you need the people to do the jobs that must be done, it doesn't make any sense," he told Radio New Zealand.

English also said the crackdown risked jeopardising the international education sector, New Zealand's fourth-largest export earner.

"This is a sector that has been a key part of diversifying our economy, particularly through the difficult times when dairy prices were low," he said.

"It employs 33,000 people and generates NZ$4.5 billion (S$4.47 billion) in exports."

English took over leadership of the ruling National Party-led coalition in December after the shock resignation of his predecessor John Key.

National currently leads Labour 49 per cent to 30 per cent in opinion polling for the September vote, but the gap narrows to less than one per cent if potential coalition partners for Little are factored in.