National is reversing away from an embarrassing blunder by one of its most senior MPs, Maurice Williamson, who now says he was wrong to suggest drivers might pay road tolls of $50 a week if his party becomes the government.
National swung into full damage-control mode yesterday to limit fallout from Mr Williamson's weekend comments, which leader John Key has disowned and political opponents have seized upon.
Mr Williamson said on Sunday that he didn't know anyone who wouldn't pay a $3 to $5 toll for a new road if they were going to save 40 minutes of commuting time - an equation that potentially added up to $50 a week.
He also named five major projects that could be tolled, including the next harbour crossing in Auckland and the Waterview tunnel.
But yesterday, Mr Williamson issued a statement to "clarify" that National would not be imposing $50 a week of road tolls on motorists as he had freely discussed in interviews.
"I am passionate about roading projects and unfortunately let my enthusiasm go unchecked," he said.
"In the National Party we are in the business of reducing people's costs, not increasing them."
The gaffe is the latest in a string of mistakes in major policy areas that National MPs have had to correct or clarify in recent months.
From KiwiSaver employer contributions to the sale of state-owned Kiwibank, National leader John Key has had to publicly say his MPs got it wrong three times since late May.
Yesterday, he said Mr Williamson had got "overexcited" and his comments were not National's policy.
The party had not yet identified which future road projects might be tolled - if any - and nor had it discussed the likely toll rates.
"Fifty dollars is far too much for people to be expected to pay," Mr Key said. "It's disappointing if he misled people. It's incorrect to say we've agreed on that position."
Mr Key said a toll of less than half what Mr Williamson was talking about was probably more realistic - something like $2.
Labour played up the difference of opinion as evidence of a rift within National's ranks over the issue of private sector involvement in building infrastructure.
National's internal error also gave Prime Minister Helen Clark another opportunity to push the "secret agenda" label she has been trying to pin to her political opponents.
"The agenda was secret until Maurice blurted it," she said.
The PM described the explanation of over-enthusiasm as "a rather sad attempt to put a gloss on what's obviously been a disaster".
It is still possible that there will be toll roads under a National-led Government, but Mr Key has indicated that alternative routes, the net benefit to the consumer and what rate of toll can be applied would all have to be carefully thought through.
Not all big new projects would need to be funded with private sector money because National has indicated it intends to lift public funding by raising Government debt levels slightly.