Winston Peters attacking two Herald reporters as "Asian immigrants" is typical behaviour designed to get attention, Prime Minister Bill English says.
Speaking to reporters today, English was asked if he would call Peters' comments racist.
"I think that's the reaction he is looking for, frankly. So I'm not going to say it," English said. "It is pretty predictable really isn't it, but it's not getting at the substance of the issue which is we have a growing economy and we need skills, including from overseas."
Labour leader Andrew Little condemned Peters, saying the comments were "out of order".
New Zealanders would form their own judgement about what Peters said, but the immigration figures that angered the New Zealand First leader "speak for themselves", Little said.
Despite being critical of Peters, both English and Little didn't rule out going into Government with New Zealand First, with English saying "we will let the voters sort out just what coalition partners any party would have to work with".
In a press release last night Peters took issue with a front-page story by Lincoln Tan and Harkanwal Singh, which examined immigration numbers, including the top five source countries for work visas last year.
Peters asserted the data and analysis was flawed, saying "propaganda written by two Asian immigrant reporters stating the top five source nations for work visas are not Asian is completely wrong".
In a response, Tan and Singh stood by the analysis and said Peters' criticism of the analysis was wrong, and "perhaps it is data which creates too much complexity for Peters to be able to blame the Asians".
Last night Dame Susan Devoy, Race Relations Commissioner, said Peters should "focus on what journalists write, not their ethnicity or race".
Herald editor Murray Kirkness said Peters' statement "comes straight from the Donald Trump playbook" and "is a new low in political rhetoric in this election year".
In another press release today, Peters stuck by his criticism and complained the Herald had not sought his comment for the original story or a follow-up today.
"As for the Herald editor and Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy - what exactly do they know about immigration? If they are unable to understand that pointing out a reporter's ethnicity is relevant when they are writing unbalanced inaccurate articles, concerning ethnic backgrounds and countries of origin, then what value are their comments."
Peters said it wasn't surprising he was being criticised by National and Labour, given their record of support for "mass immigration".
This morning, Act Party leader David Seymour said it mattered that someone in Peters' position was making such "idiotic" statements.
"I meet people in my electorate [Epsom]. In one case a woman who was pushed out onto Manukau Rd by someone yelling racist tirades. Unfortunately there are some people out there who don't have a lot of original thought, and they are likely to have their views legitimised by leaders.
"There is a space for a debate about immigration and its impact, particularly on things like housing and infrastructure. And people want to have that debate, even a lot of recent immigrants to New Zealand."