National leader John Key says he did not force his deputy Bill English to make a statement today retracting his comments about selling off Kiwibank.
Mr English was secretly recorded at the National Party conference last weekend saying the party would sell off Kiwibank "eventually" and last night, under repeated questioning from TVNZ on Mr Key's understanding of the Working for Families (WFF) package, he failed to back his party leader.
In a bid to close down what has become an embarrassing story for National, Mr English issued the statement this morning, taking back his Kiwibank comments and seeking to play down talk of him criticising Mr Key.
"With respect to Kiwibank, I shouldn't have made the comments I made. National has had no discussions about Kiwibank and has no plans to sell it," he said.
"Comments I made regarding the complexity of WFF have been construed as criticism of John Key. That is wrong. My repeated responses to this question yesterday reflected my determination not to widen the debate - not an attempt to criticise John Key.
"I should have made it clear that I meant no such criticism and I'm making that clear today."
He said the comments secretly recorded at the weekend had caused "confusion and concern" and he added: "I did not choose my words well."
Mr Key, speaking with Mr English outside a party caucus meeting this morning, said he did not feel the comments had undermined his leadership and his deputy, who retained his confidence, had not been forced by him to make today's statement.
He said Mr English's comments on his understanding of Labour's families package had some merit in relation to his 2005 position.
"I was advocating as the finance spokesman a much more radical overhaul of Working For Families.
"For the last two years Bill and I have working very closely on that issue and what we've come to recognise is that it is a lot more difficult to change and I think he had a valid point."
He said the secret tape recording suggested it would be a "pretty robust election campaign".
In a poll on nzherald.co.nz today, 66 per cent of more than 2600 people taking part by 3pm said they would mind if a future government sold off Kiwibank.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said Mr English's statement did not change anything and Prime Minister Helen Clark said she did not believe it.
"They may wrap the thing up in blankets but it doesn't put it to bed," Dr Cullen said.
"I think Mr English sees himself as the one the who drives the policy and he sees Mr Key as just the front man, the one who goes around the country smiling nicely and saying nice things that people want to hear."
Helen Clark said it was not credible that National had not discussed selling Kiwibank.
"I think this formulae - which they repeat like a mantra - that there would be no sales in the first term, is simply a code for 'of course we have discussed these things. We think it is very hard to get elected when you say you will sell state-owned assets'."
She said National would spend its first term if it was elected preparing assets for sale.
The taped conversation was leaked to TV3 News on Sunday night. Mr English was talking to delegates at a private function and said National would eventually sell the state-owned bank.
- NZHERALD STAFF, NZPA