Peters' immigration platform looks finally set to gain traction, but in the end could be to his detriment.

The merest mention by Winston Peters of the words "bottom line" is enough to send a shiver down National and Labour spines - especially when it comes to a controversial New Zealand First policy on immigration.

The two major parties need not worry so much. Peters is insisting - despite reports to the contrary last week - that he never said that he would be making his plan for new immigrants to be sent to the regions for a minimum of five years a bottom-line condition for National or Labour securing his party's backing during government-formation negotiations later in the year.

What he does expect in post-election talks is significant change in immigration policy.

That shift is already under way. With far fewer New Zealanders leaving for Australia and more returning, the increasing pressures on the Auckland housing market is forcing a rapid change of thinking.


Labour is now talking of a net annual intake of between 5000 and 15,000, rather than the current level of around 31,000. While National may still argue current levels are not causing problems, it would be out of character for Prime Minister John Key to allow Labour leader David Cunliffe to make all the running on what looks like becoming a hot election issue. It is the curse of the smaller parties that their continued relevance comes into question once bigger parties have finally adopted the very ideas they have been promoting for so long. That may be why Peters is pushing for "regional dispersal" of immigrants - something which neither of the two major parties find attractive.

Finance Minister Bill English has said National is not keen "on that sort of deal", while Labour leader David Cunliffe argues that people are "communities not commodities".

Sending migrants to the regions is not as radical as it might seem, however. Canada has long been endeavouring to siphon immigrants into its under-populated provinces, while Australia has a migration scheme which allows skilled foreign workers to obtain a permanent visa to work in regions if they can find an employer to sponsor them. They are obliged to remain employed by the sponsor's company for two years. Failure to comply can result in the cancellation of their entry visa.

The same sanction would apply under Peters' scheme. It would not be compulsory to go to the regions. But would-be immigrants would increase their chances of gaining a residence visa if they did.

The Auckland housing crisis is galvanising the immigration debate. That should be to Peters' advantage. Ironically it could also be to his cost.