Nats backflip on selling of state's assets

Last updated 23:13 13/04/2008

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National has moved to inoculate itself against another major Labour Party policy, promising not to sell any state assets in its first term in government.

Leader John Key's pledge on TVNZ's Agenda programme yesterday followed Prime Minister Helen Clark making the issue of asset sales, including Auckland Airport, a "defining issue" in her speech to Labour's election-year congress in Wellington on Saturday.

Key overturned years of National Party policy by making the U-turn on asset sales, saying preparing state-owned enterprises for sale would "not be a good use of our time".

National entered the 2005 election campaign promising to sell part of Solid Energy and Landcorp. Last year, National deputy leader Bill English floated partial asset sales as a way of raising capital for new infrastructure.

But Key said the previous National position on asset sales had been "pretty timid" and that after having "time to reflect" on National's position he had decided to rule them out, at least for the party's first term.

"I don't want us to spend a whole lot of time skirting around the edges of something that won't ultimately make the New Zealand economy go a lot faster. We're not back in 1984."

Asked if that meant National would sell them in its second term, Key said he was not going to write the party's 2011 manifesto before the 2008 election. "If there's any change to the position, then we'll come back to the people and seek a mandate for that."

Clark said Key's stance was "laughable" and could not be trusted. "The promise seems to be they'll spend their whole first term working on it and then they'll really get down to business selling the silverware," she said. "That's what they stand for and, now that we know it, it's obviously a very powerful campaign tool for the Labour Party."

Clark denied Key had essentially removed one of Labour's major campaign planks by agreeing not to sell state assets. "I believe Mr Key wants to sell SOEs. He's now confirmed that. That's why this is going to be a big election issue. He has put this issue squarely on the agenda. National wants to sell the family silver. Labour doesn't.

"Mr Key's whole history as leader of the National Party over the past 18 months or so has been one of flip flop, flip flop. I don't think he really remembers what he said yesterday."

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In her weekend speech to about 600 delegates in Wellington, Clark said the Government's decision to veto the partial sale of Auckland Airport was "a defining issue".

"We have a vision for the future of New Zealand which sees New Zealanders in control of their destiny -- and not as a small pawn in the plans of others," she said.

She said after the meeting that asset sales were "a huge issue ... National wants to sell the Government's State-Owned Enterprises. That is now plain for all to see. We don't."

Key said that trying to paint Auckland Airport as a state asset was mischievous since it had been sold (by National) in 1998.

"This is an asset that was sold, rightly or wrongly a decade ago," he said. "This is about the change in composition of those shareholders."

Clark's speech contained no new policy initiatives or ideas -- a move that surprised pundits and National strategists, who had expected her to use the platform to seize the initiative.

But Clark said Labour already had plenty of policy and the weekend's purpose was to talk campaign strategy and rally the troops.

Clark said she was optimistic about Labour's chances at the election but admitted the party had not always "got everything right or performed as well as we should have".

She denied Labour was tired or dispirited, saying National needed a new script. "They are the ones now looking tired and out of touch."

A sour note at Labour's congress came when about 50 protesters from a variety of causes set off a fire alarm at the venue, forcing Clark to delay her speech. She said she was unfazed by the protest

"Everybody took a short break in the sun for a while. But, hey, a few protesters aren't going to stop the New Zealand Labour Party."

- The Press

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