'Private' dinner a public disgrace

For anyone who believes in open, transparent government, it was an ugly sight.

In the face of questions in parliament this week about the identity of a Chinese border official she had dinner with - an official who could potentially help her husband's dairy company get greater access for its milk to the lucrative Chinese market - Justice Minister Judith Collins was defiant.

"It was a private dinner," she said. "I have no ministerial responsibility to explain it."

Her position was outrageous in its casual dismissal of the people for whom she was elected to represent, but also entirely inconsistent with her earlier public comments on the matter.

When the conflict-of-interest saga that has dogged Collins for weeks first erupted, she conveniently failed to mention the dinner during her ministerial visit to China at all. She only revealed she had dinner with Oravida boss Stone Shi and the border control official after she was ordered to by the Prime Minister's office. After a public dressing down from John Key last month Collins conceded, "it would have been better if I had not treated it like a private dinner, which it was, but had actually reported it through [to Cabinet]".

So, the dinner was private, then she accepted it wasn't private, and proceeded to respond to Opposition questions about it in the House.

But this week she changed tack again, saying that, in fact, she wasn't required to include the dinner in her report back to Cabinet because the Cabinet Manual "makes it very clear that only matters of importance should, in fact, be put in".

She said "having dinner is not something that anyone would consider a matter of national importance".

So, the dinner that was private, then wasn't, was private once more, and the taxpayers of New Zealand who funded her trip to China had no right to know anything about it.

Of course, in the normal course of things having dinner is not a matter of national importance. But when that dinner is with the head of your husband's milk company, which is having difficulty getting its product into China, and a Chinese border official, the details of who was there and what was said are of considerable national importance.

The New Zealand public has a right to know that the people on whom we bestow power behave in an ethical manner and are in service solely to the public good. The mere perception that a Minister of the Crown might be using her position to financially benefit a family member damages our democracy.

Collins might think she was simply evading her political adversaries in refusing to answer questions this week, but in doing so she treated the people of New Zealand with utter contempt.

Manawatu Standard