WELLINGTON -- New Zealand's main opposition political party said Monday it would cut immigration by up to 40% if it wins national elections on Sept. 23.
Andrew Little, leader of the center-left New Zealand Labour Party, said immigration had to be reined in to reduce strains on housing, infrastructure and social services, particularly in the country's largest city Auckland. In the year to April, net immigration totaled 71,900 and Little promised to cut that by 20,000-30,000 annually.
"This will ease the pressures on New Zealand and on Auckland in particular," he said at the party's policy launch in Auckland.
A poll by research agency Colmar Brunton earlier this month showed Labour trailing the ruling center-right National Party by 19 points. National was in the lead with 49% approval ratings while the Green Party, with whom Labour hopes to form a coalition government, had 9%. In another poll in May by Roy Morgan Research in May, Labour and the Greens had a total of 42.5% approval ratings, almost on a par with National's 43%.
Little said 130,000 more people have settled in New Zealand than forecast in the last four years, and the National Party government, in power since 2008, had failed to plan for the impact on the country of nearly 4.8 million people.
Some had wondered if National would lose some ground after its popular leader John Key resigned in December having served 8 years as prime minister. Current leader and Prime Minister Bill English was deputy prime minister and finance minister throughout Key's premiership, but he is also responsible for leading the National Party to a disastrous election defeat in 2002.
In response to the growing public debate over immigration, the government announced in April new rules, including restricting lower skilled workers to a three-year visa period and new minimum income thresholds for those in skilled worker categories. Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse described the tightening as a "Kiwis first" approach, although opposition parties dismissed it as "tinkering."
"After nine years, National has failed to make the necessary investments in housing, infrastructure and public services that are needed to cope with this rapid population growth," Little said.
But he also added that New Zealand would continue to welcome immigrants.
"New Zealand is rightly proud of its immigrant communities and the contribution they make to our country. But we need to take a breather and get the balance right," he said.
As part of the cuts, a Labour-led government would stop allowing foreign students on "low level" education courses to work during and after their New Zealand study. In recent years, scandals have come to light involving corrupt Indian immigration agents and private education providers offering poor-quality courses as back-door entry into the country.
A total of 129,800 immigrants arrived in New Zealand in the year to April, of whom a quarter were returning New Zealanders. A total of 97,810 non-New Zealanders arrived for the long term, a third higher than five years earlier.
In the past, immigration was also offset by a large outflow of New Zealanders to other countries, particularly Australia. But as economic growth has slowed in Australia in the last three years, this net outflow of New Zealanders has reduced to a trickle.
Australia, too, has tightened the screws on immigration. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in April that Australia will ditch its popular temporary work visa and replace it with a visa requiring better English-language and work skills.
In the year to April , a total of 14,968 people arrived from Britain in New Zealand and 12,380 from China, forming the largest groups of immigrants. They were trailed by immigrants from India, non-New Zealanders from Australia, the Philippines and South Africa.
Nearly half of all immigrants settled in Auckland, where house prices have risen by more than 50% in the last four years to 1 million New Zealand dollars ($720,000). In this city of just around 1.6 million people, transport infrastructure and other services are struggling.
But English said immigration cuts planned by Little would stall the economy, which grew 3.1% in 2016.
"We need the people to do the jobs. Right now, the demands in the construction sector are as high as they've ever been. We need more people to build the roads, the water pipes, the houses."
Business leaders in dairy farming, fruit growing, elderly care and hospitality say immigrant labor is essential because New Zealanders are unwilling to take up low-paying jobs.
Immigration is one of the main issues of contention ahead of the September elections. Although anti-immigration sentiment is not as strong in New Zealand as in some other developed countries such as the U.S. and Britain, debate has grown in recent years against a backdrop of sluggish income growth.
A survey by research company UMR for Auckland University of Technology found 49% of New Zealanders were generally positive about immigration and 48% ambivalent or negative. However, excluding people who had migrated to New Zealand in the last five years, those who were positive about immigration fell to 31% against 67% who were negative or ambivalent.
In New Zealand's proportional voting system, it is possible the balance of power could be held by Winston Peters' New Zealand First Party, which has recorded 9-10% approval ratings. The New Zealand First Party operates on a strong anti-immigration platform that appeals to older voters who tend to be more opposed to immigration.
Peters has not yet released his election policies but has promised to cut numbers sharply under a "rigorous and strictly applied immigration policy."