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Watch: 'I'm not going to say it' - PM sidesteps Winston Peters racism question, after NZ First leader's attack on 'two Asian immigrant' NZ Herald reporters

Prime Minister Bill English has weighed in on Winston Peters who yesterday attacked a newspaper article about immigration figures  - as well as the "two Asian immigrant reporters" who wrote it.

Figures released yesterday by Statistics New Zealand showed that net migration to the country remains at a record high, with just under 72,000 new arrivals in the year to March.

Mr Peters yesterday sent out a press release questioning the accuracy and alleged bias of an article by New Zealand Herald journalists Lincoln Tan and Harkanwal Singh, inferring that because they are of Asian descent they had somehow skewed the data.

"New Zealand Herald propaganda written by two Asian immigrant reporters stating the top five source nations for work visas are not Asian is completely wrong and based on flawed analysis," the release read.

The Herald has since released a detailed rebuttal to the claims, effectively showing that they responsibly and reasonably interpreted the immigration data.

Mr English this afternoon said he was not surprised by Mr Peters using this kind of political "method".

"Look ... it's pretty predictable really isn't it - but it's not getting at the substance of the issue, which is that we've got a growing economy where we need skills, including from overseas.

"We just made some changes in our rules to ensure that we get a better match of skills and control the numbers."

When asked directly where he considered Mr Peters release to be racist, Mr English sidestepped the issue.

"I think that's the reaction he's looking for, frankly, so I'm not going to say it," Mr English said.

"Mr Peters has used this kind of method for a long time it's designed to get attention.

"It's still unclear what his immigraiton policy actually is ... in any case, we'll let the voters sort out just what coalition partners any party would have to work with."

DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR CALLS REMARKS 'ABSOLUTELY DISGRACEFUL' 

Earlier today, Massey University's Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley called the comments "absolutely disgraceful".

Paul Spoonley of Massey University says that despite it being an election year, Mr Peters’ comments were still un-called for. Source: Breakfast

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, speaking this morning to TVNZ's Breakfast programme, said that it may be an election year, but such comments were inexcusable regardless.

"Let me be polite - I thought it was disgraceful," Professor Spoonley said.

"I think the fact that he called something that the Herald had carefully researched 'propaganda', and he referred to the ethnicity - which was Asian - of the two journalists, absolutely disgraceful."

Professor Spoonley said the fact it is an election year is no excuse for such rhetoric.

"Let's not go down the track of some of the other countries where immigration becomes the problem and the solution ... it's not - it's part of a complex picture and let's understand what immigration is doing to New Zealand - its negative and positive aspects - and have a debate about what's actually happening," he said.

"There are whole industries in New Zealand which are absolutely reliant on migrant labour - those go from the temporary workers who come in to pick out crops all the way through to the high-end professionals who are absolutely essential to an industry like health.

"New Zealand is a very attractive place to come to and the economy is booming and migrants make a very important contribution to that economy."

Murray Kirkness, editor of the Herald, has also slammed Mr Peters' comments as "a statement from the Trump playbook".

"Peters would best be advised to try to grasp the complexity of the issues, and make a useful contribution to the immigration debate, rather than playing the race card or taking a wildly desperate swing at the media," Mr Kirkness wrote.

At the last general election in 2014, Winston Peters' NZ First received nine per cent of the party vote, giving them 11 MPs in parliament.

Bill English said Mr Peters has been using similar tactics for a long time, and that they are designed to get attention. Source: 1 NEWS