Judith Collins 'regrets' Oravida interactions

ANDREA VANCE AND MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 16:41 06/05/2014
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Judith Collins faces the heat at Parliament's Question Time.

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Judith Collins under heavy guard

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JUDITH COLLINS: The minister is taking some time off this week, saying the pressure of the Oravida controversy is proving stressful.

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Justice Minister Judith Collins skipped a law and business meeting to visit dairy company Oravida's Shanghai offices, Labour claims.

At Parliament's Question Time, Labour said papers released last week show Collins was due to attend a law roundtable on a taxpayer-funded trip to China last year.

The main purpose of the trip was to discuss justice matters.

Collins said the itinerary was a draft - and she "utterly and totally" rejected the allegations.

Collins made a detour to Oravida's office on the way to the airport.

She said she called in for a cup of tea rather than wait in the airport lounge.

The company - of which her husband is a director - later used her picture as a product endorsement, without her consent.

Labour MP Grant Robertson said the meeting was "in the timeslot" given to Oravida in an itinerary releases by MFAT last week.

He pointed to statements made on March 19 where she said she only had two options - returning to the airport or visiting Oravida.

Collins also took offence to a comment made by Labour's Trevor Mallard that the meeting participants "didn't pay enough" and claims of "half a million dollars to the family."

Mallard refused to withdraw the remark and was ordered to leave the House.

He later said he based his $500,000 claim on the average of about $50,000 for private directors' fees. 

He understood Collins' husband David Wong-Tung had held five Oravida group directorships for two years each, so he had done "some simple maths".

"It's not that complicated a matter. If I am badly wrong and Judith Collins tabled evidence to the contrary then at that point I would be willing to apologise. But at the moment I'm not."

Speaking after Question Time, Collins dismissed the allegation.

"He's been making that allegation for quite some time and today he was very clear and very loud so I simply did what I could which was to take objection to it."

Mallard had "made up" the $500,000 figure, she said.

Her husband was only a director or Oravida and not a shareholder and had not received any payment outside his director fees, she said.

Labour leader David Cunliffe quizzed Prime Minister John Key on why he sacked Maurice Williamson, John Banks, Phil Heatley and Peter Dunne - but not Collins.

Key said he judged every case on its merits.

SPECIAL TREATMENT

Labour is claiming there is further evidence that dairy company Oravida got special treatment from the Government.

Oravida was having problems getting its milk into China last year in the wake of the Fonterra botulism scare.

Collins had dinner with Oravida executives and a Chinese border control official while on the trip in October.

The dairy exporter has donated around $65,000 to National Party coffers. But she says she knew nothing of their border control woes and the Beijing dinner was private.

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Documents obtained by Labour show that by December, Oravida's products were being cleared for import. However, milk from another company, Guangzhou Ruima Food Limited, was not accepted.

Both export the same two litre bottles from supplier Green Valley Dairies.

Robertson says Collins' "intervention" was "designed to benefit Oravida".

"Oravida's fresh milk supplier Green Valley Dairies also supplies the same two litre bottles to Guangzhou Ruima Food Limited, simply with a different label," he said.

"However, Guangzhou Ruima Food's fresh milk shipment in December was rejected by China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine."

He says there is a correlation between Collins' Oravida meetings and the export issues "disappearing".

Collins has categorically denied intervening to help Oravida. She said Robertson was drawing a long bow with the latest claims.

She has reiterated that she knew nothing of Oravida's border control problems.

Asked if the firm had benefited from its links to her or National, Collins said "quite the opposite". 

Prime Minister John has resisted calls to sack Collins, but has given her time off this week to recover from the intense scrutiny faced. 

Opposition parties are this afternoon set to make hay with documents released by the foreign affairs ministry last week, which detail the preparations leading up to the visit.

UNDER FIRE

Asked this morning if she regretted the visit, Collins said: "Do you know I really do. I think, unfortunately, it has caused a lot of stress for a lot of people, particularly for the prime minister and my colleagues."

Collins said she wasn't aware of Oravida's border woes.

"I'm not involved in the detail of the company at all," she said.

"My office and I have nothing to do with the business of Oravida."

On her way to a weekly caucus meeting this morning, she was flanked by cabinet colleagues Tony Ryall and Paula Bennett.

"The prime minister and I agreed that it is time to take a couple of days and regroup with my family," she said.

"I think it is good advice."

Emails released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade last week have put her under further pressure to explain the dinner, which she insists was private.

However, her staff asked for a briefing from Beijing embassy staff, which Collins said was an over-zealous error.

"The emails actually back up what I have said on numerous occasions over the last couple of months," she said.

"They confirmed that it was a private dinner."

Labour leader David Cunliffe said the apparent stress Collins was under would not protect her from questions in the House.

"The question is why is she in the House if she is in a fragile state," he said.

He again questioned the way which Collins was being protected by prime minister John Key and said Labour had more revelations on the issue.

"If the average Kiwi worker was untruthful to their boss and to the public they would most likely lose their job," he said.

"Her getting a $5000 paid holiday instead, is something most New Zealanders will find very strange."

- Fairfax Media

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