(dpa) - New Zealand's fast-growing Asian population seems set for the spotlight at this year's general election, as official projections that it will nearly double its numbers inside the next 20 years.
The nationalist New Zealand First party, which has picked up votes from the anti-immigrant minority in past elections, with "Whose country is it anyway?" campaigns, was quick to capitalize on the new population forecasts.
There are currently about 400,000 Asians in the country and Statistics New Zealand predicted their number would increase by 3.4 per cent a year to 790,000 by 2026 when they would account for 16 per cent of the population.
This makes them the fastest-growing ethnic group and is driven by immigration unlike the majority white European, indigenous Maori and immigrant Pacific island communities, whose growth is projected to come from natural increases of births over deaths.
"This is a great country - a fantastic country - why do we want to stuff it up by having the wrong mix of people?" said the New Zealand First party's deputy leader Peter Brown, himself an immigrant from Britain.
Brown claimed that many Asian immigrants did not speak English, did not integrate and formed "mini-societies that will lead to division, friction and resentment."
It was a typical attack from the New Zealand First party, founded in 1993 but according to current opinion polls destined for political oblivion at the election due by mid-November.
The opposition National Party's ethnic Chinese Member of Parliament Pansy Wong - an immigrant from Hong Kong - shrugged it off, saying, "Asian New Zealanders are quite mature - they understand that this is election year."
And Michael Barnett, head of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, said, "Asian New Zealanders, and those overseas, should see this for what it is - a pathetic piece of political posturing by a minority party on the ropes."
Chinese immigrants began arriving in New Zealand in the 1860s to work the gold fields and they remain the largest Asian community, followed by Indians, Koreans and Filipinos.
The official projections suggested that Asian numbers in 2026 would be just below those of the native Maoris, who are tipped to increase by 1.4 per cent annually from 620,000 to 820,000, or 17 per cent of the total.
"It's a bit rich when the original inhabitants get shoved further down the pile because successive governments keep throwing the doors open to New Zealand," Brown said, claiming that Asians "have no intention of integrating into our society."
New Zealand is a country of immigration. Even the Maori people established themselves as the original people of the land by historic migrant voyages from Pacific island countries.
And most Asians have integrated very well, said the government's Ethnic Affairs Minister Chris Carter, who accused Brown of "absolutely being racist" and noting that he had come to New Zealand for a better life just like every other migrant.
Carter said Asian New Zealanders were "disproportionately absent" from crime statistics and their students were "disproportionately successful" at schools and universities.
And Alasdair Thompson, chief executive of the Employers & Manufacturers Association, Auckland, called Brown's comments "racial stereotyping of the worst sort."
"We need our newer migrants," he said. "We don't need Mr Brown's racism."
Barnett, of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, said Asian New Zealanders should see "New Zealand First's latest round of Asian-bashing as a bad joke by a minor political party on the ropes in an election year."
New Zealand First is led by Winston Peters, who was made Foreign Minister after the last election in 2005 in exchange for offering support to the Labour Party-led coalition but maintained his distance by refusing to join the government formally.
Observers are waiting to see how Peters, who cannot credibly criticise Asians while representing his country abroad, campaigns in the election which must be held by mid-November.
An anti-immigration stance has served him well in previous elections and the polls show that he badly needs some vote-winning tactics if the party he founded 15 years ago is to survive.