Key backs Collins over Oravida dinner

HAMISH RUTHERFORD AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 06:49 20/03/2014

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Judith Collins retains the backing of Prime Minister John Key, who says he saw nothing new in Labour's continued questioning of the Justice Minister in Parliament.

Collins has faced accusations of a conflict of interest over her meetings in China last year with senior executives of Oravida, a company that exports fresh New Zealand milk and other products to China and of which her husband is a director.

The accusations have centred on a dinner she held in Shanghai with her "personal friend", Oravida founder Stone Shi, one of his colleagues, and an unnamed Chinese customs official.

In Parliament yesterday Collins said she knew the dinner was planned before she left for China, and the name and rank of the Chinese official who would be attending.

But Key, who is in China this week, said he saw nothing new in what Labour claimed were "revelations".

"I don't see any inconsistency with what she said to me on the Wednesday when she told me about the dinner that took place that I was unaware of, and what she said today," Key said early this morning (NZ time).

"I think the statements she's made have been very consistent."

Questions have been raised whether Collins gave the impression that the dinner was arranged last minute, but Key said he could only make his judgements on his conversations with her and what he knew of her public statements, and he saw no issue.

The man at the centre of the controversy, Stone Shi, was at a function for dairy companies hosted by Key in Beijing last night. Shi declined to speak to the media when approached, but was later photographed with both Key and Trade Minister Tim Groser.

Key has repeatedly said on the trip that he has no issue with Shi or his business, saying it was a legitimate business with substantial dealings in China, that was blazing a trail in a new line of exports.

"We wish them well," Key said on Tuesday.

'MUST BE LAST STRAW'

Collins labelled as "desperate" claims by Labour's Grant Robertson that she had used up her final warning and may face the sack.

Robertson said revelations Collins had organised a dinner with Oravida executives and a senior Chinese border control official in China last year before she left New Zealand "must be the last straw for Prime Minister John Key".

"She also said she knew the name and job description of the senior Chinese official that she would be meeting at the dinner. It is beyond belief she thought meeting such a senior official with her husband's fellow directors did not give rise to a conflict of interest," he said.

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But Collins said she had made it clear to media last week that the dinner was arranged a few days before her trip.

"The prime minister's office was made aware of all details of this dinner, including those who attended, last week," she said.

She had apologised to Key and he had accepted her apology.

But Robertson said she had actually apologised for not answering questions as fully as she should have, not for knowing the border official's name and role before she left New Zealand.

"The minister has tried to pass off her dinner and a visit to Oravida as casual encounters. That is not true."

Key last week effectively put Collins on notice, saying he would not want to be in her shoes if she slipped again.

- Stuff

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