Staff grilled as Collins agrees to break

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 06/05/2014

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The Prime Minister's right-hand man yesterday grilled Judith Collins' staff, as the "struggling" justice minister agreed to take some time off.

Collins has been under pressure for weeks about her links to dairy exporter Oravida. She will front up to Parliament today to face fresh questions about the political storm.

But after that she will take a "refresher" over four or five days, with Prime Minister John Key admitting she is "struggling under the pressure".

A personal attack on TVNZ political reporter Katie Bradford on Sunday has raised eyebrows. It comes as Key's chief of staff Wayne Eagleson called in Collins' staff yesterday morning to clear up details about the lead-up to a visit to Oravida's Chinese offices.

Collins' husband David Wong-Tung is a director of the company and she has insisted a dinner with its executives was private. However, her office asked for a foreign affairs briefing - not usual for an unofficial meeting. Collins says her staff mistakenly made the request.

It is understood Eagleson summoned Collins' staff to his office to get to the bottom of who exactly asked for the briefing.

However, Key's office denied this and underplayed Eagleson's intervention, saying he regularly meets with staff.

Collins will face a grilling of her own today as the Opposition turn up the heat on her links with Oravida during Question Time.

Collins must explain why documents recently released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say the purpose of the visit and tour was "to increase the profile" of Oravida.

Labour MP Grant Robertson says this breaks rules governing Cabinet ministers' conduct because it shows she "went out of her way on a taxpayer-funded justice trip to promote her husband's company".

However, Key continues to back Collins. "I just think she should take a bit of a break and take a refresher," he said.

Collins was upset over the resignation of former minister Maurice Williamson. She apologised to Bradford in a telephone call last night.

Oravida has donated about $65,000 to the National Party, including $30,000 after the visit last year.

While on the taxpayer-funded trip to Beijing in October, Collins dined with company bosses Stone Shi and Julia Xu, along with a senior Chinese border official.

Three days later she visited their Shanghai offices.

"I am very comfortable that the situation is kosher," Key said.

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- The Dominion Post

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