Dinner bill under wraps

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 20:37 18/03/2014

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The Beijing dinner attended by Justice Minister Judith Collins and a senior staffer appears to have been paid for by either Oravida or the senior Chinese official who neither she nor the Government is prepared to name.

There could be further diplomatic fallout if that is the case, as Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched austerity measures under an anti-corruption drive that has put the spotlight on Chinese officials who accept gifts or lavish dinners.

In response to questions yesterday, Collins confirmed neither she nor her staffer Margaret Malcolm paid for the dinner, and she reiterated that it had not been paid for by taxpayers.

Labour plans to target Collins in Parliament today over the dinner after details emerged last week following questions about her trip to China and separate meeting with Oravida, of which her husband is a director.

Prime Minister John Key put Collins on notice after she kept details of the Beijing dinner back from him.

Those at the dinner were Collins, Malcolm, Oravida's Stone Shi and Julia Xu, and a Chinese border control official.

Collins said yesterday she could not confirm whether Shi, who is Oravida's owner, or the unnamed Chinese official paid for the dinner.

One possibility is that the Chinese official paid for his own dinner, which would ensure he did not fall foul of China's austerity drive.

But government sensitivity about further diplomatic fallout might be behind the decision not to identify the official.

Collins said last week she had been told it was government policy not to identify officials, but has said he was a "close friend" of Shi's.

Entertaining officials in China can be a diplomatic minefield under President Xi's tough new rules, which have seen a dramatic fall in the sales of luxury goods and restrictions on the number of courses that officials can have during a reception.

Collins was close to tears last week after questions about her links to Oravida, after she appeared to endorse the company's milk and scampi exports to China on its website following a side trip to the company's Shanghai premises.

But it was only after details of the dinner emerged that Key acknowledged her dealings with Oravida created a perception of a conflict of interest.

Collins evaded questions from reporters this morning, saying she didn't know who paid for the meal because she didn't ask on the night.

''Well actually, I've already said I didn't pay for it, Margaret Malcolm didn't pay for it, the taxpayer didn't pay for it.

''I don't know who did, and I haven't asked.''

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When asked if she thought it added to perceptions of a conflict of interest that either a Chinese official or Oravida paid for the dinner, she responded: ''Well actually, it doesn't,'' before walking away from reporters.

Now, new questions are emerging over how far Oravida offices are from the airport at which Collins departed Shanghai. Answering questions in the house this afternoon, Collins said she didn't know how far away the offices were.

Labour MP Grant Robertson said a visit to Oravida - 30km from Shanghai Pudong Airport - would have constituted an 80km round-trip - suggesting it was more than the "cup of tea" that had been suggested.

Collins said she was unaware of the geography of Shanghai, but was advised she had time for a "quick visit".

Outside the House, Collins said she did not remember how long the car trip was.

"I don't know, I don't know, because I don't know the information. It's not Auckland where I know the way around the place, but I was advised that we had time to go and see Oravida."

Prime Minister John Key this evening would not discuss Mrs Collins’ refusal to answer questions over who paid for the meal she had with a Chinese customs official and Oravida executives.

“The Labour Party’s sort of down in the little weeds going through various aspects of it, but actually as the Herald digi-poll showed New Zealanders are really interested in the Government creating jobs and dealing with the issues that really matter to them, the [Oravida] issue had a fair hearing last week... I’m not really going to engage in it much from here,” he said from China.

Asked if Mrs Collins’ revealing who paid for the meal would help people move on, Key said: “I don’t think the Labour Party’s ever going to move on, but I have moved on so I think that’s useful.”

- The Dominion Post

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