Key Points:

There are predictions thousands of New Zealanders living in Australia could start heading home to claim the dole as tough economic times hit.

In opposition, National complained about the brain drain to Australia and said it would try and lure people back to its shores since recording one of its biggest migration outflows ever last year.

Labour finance spokesman David Cunliffe said National might get what it wished for, but not for the right reasons as expatriate Kiwis who lost jobs in Australia could return home to collect the unemployment benefit.

Restrictions introduced in 2001 rule that only permanent residents can collect social security in Australia.

The comments come after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd revealed that tax revenues had collapsed by A$115 billion ($147 billion), sending the budget into deficit.

Finance Minister Bill English agreed tough times would prompt more Kiwis to return home, but it was a trend the country should try to capitalise on.

"If New Zealanders come home we want to make sure we're building the strength of the economy so that when we do get through this recession there are jobs for kiwis coming back, particularly from Australia, so we don't lose them again," Mr English said ahead of a meeting with his Australian counterpart tomorrow.

Professor Graeme Hugo, an expert in labour migration at the University of Adelaide, said the trend was not yet captured in statistics but was "very likely".

"It's ironic considering all the efforts to attract Kiwis home, that they'll probably now get them.

"It's important though that they see that what they're getting is an addition to their economy, very employable people coming back, rather than seeing it as more people on the benefit."

He said New Zealanders were invaluable in the Australian workplace, with a lower unemployment rate than Australian-born workers "because they participate more effectively in the workforce".

In the 2007/08 financial year, 46,000 people moved from New Zealand to Australia and only 13,000 went back the other way, making it the biggest net migration since the new laws were introduced.