Brutal first week of 'unofficial' campaign

If this is what the first week of the ‘‘unofficial’’ election campaign looks like, heaven help us when the campaign proper gets under way.

It was a brutal week that brought the iron lady of New Zealand politics, Judith Collins, close to tears, and saw National looking as dishevelled as Labour has been looking of late.

It seems fitting then that Prime Minister John Key used a rugby analogy to describe the election campaign after naming September 20 as the day voters will go to the polls.

Key likened election campaigns to the Rugby World Cup, where even the best team in the world can be humbled by a lesser side playing a blinder on the day. But if Key loses the September 20 election it won’t be because Labour played a blinder, but because National played a shocker. And that scenario seems far less implausible now than it did a month ago.

Key’s public dressing down of Collins, one of his most senior ministers, was not just a reflection of his anger that she had misled him over the extent of her dealings with Oravida owner Stone Shi, whose milk export business she visited in Shanghai, sparking a storm of criticism after appearing to endorse their products on his website.

He would also have been furious that the imperious way in which Collins batted off questions about her actions meant she was displaying the sort of qualities that make a government look arrogant and out of touch, a sure route to losing the affection of voters.

But Collins also committed the cardinal sin of hanging her leader out to dry by failing to put him fully in the picture about her dealings with Shi in Shanghai.

Key had defended Collins throughout last week without knowing about her dinner with Shi and others, including a Chinese border control official in Beijing, ahead of her factory visit.

Had that event been sprung on an unwitting Key during questions from the Opposition or media, he would have looked complicit in keeping it secret. His earlier blunder in wrongly asserting that the Cabinet Office acquired a Chinese translation of the Oravida website before clearing Collins free of any conflict of interest would have compounded that perception.

Anything less than coming down hard on Collins would have only played into the Opposition’s election year narrative of National ‘‘helping out its rich mates’’ given Shi’s sizeable donation to National and the path beaten to Oravida’s door by a string of National MPs and party officials.

Key did not act earlier because on the face of it Collins’ ‘‘endorsement’’ of Oravida was the sort of trap any minister can inadvertently fall into when they are being hosted by  a business, though in this case it was more serious because her husband is a director of Oravida, so could be seen to directly benefit.

Despite Opposition claims to the contrary, that blunder is not in the same league as the events that led to former National minister Pansy Wong’s sacking, which was a result of her husband abusing his travel perk to conduct business in China.

As Collins herself noted she turns up at the opening of an envelope. Oravida has not been above using pictures of Key and ministers other than Collins to suggest to its customers it has friends in high places.

Subsequent revelations about National ministers intervening in the immigration status of another  wealthy Chinese businessman, Donghua Liu, only reinforce the notion that money and politicians have a habit of seeking each other out.

The smell of National favouring rich donors is only avoided by the fact that Labour’s fingerprints are also over the Liu case. Labour overrode official advice to grant Liu residency just  as National overrode official advice to grant him citizenship. This is a different Liu to the one that embroiled Labour MP Shane Jones in controversy after he used his ministerial discretion to grant residency to a Chinese national under the scrutiny of Interpol against official advice.

What that proves is that, for their own sakes, politicians should be at the forefront of those clamouring to remove the power of discretion in immigration cases from ministers. As long as those who are recipients of such ‘‘compassion’’ are free to donate money to political parties, the suspicion of favours for money will linger.

From Labour’s perspective, meanwhile, the Collins affair has been a godsend and a welcome distraction from its own woes, which had begun to seem so insurmountable there was a risk its MPs and supporters were going to throw in the towel before the election campaign was even under way.

But some of those strains have continued to rumble beneath the surface over former leadership contender Shane Jones overshadowing not just his leader David Cunliffe, but trampling on the toes of the other one-time leadership contender Grant Robertson, who had been running the Collins story for Labour.

Ordinarily a leadership rival working so aggressively to raise his own profile in the face of low polling would suggest that he is positioning himself for a leadership tilt. But leaving aside the obvious logistical headaches involved under Labour’s new rules, Jones is self aware enough to know that like Judith Collins he has probably had too many strikes against him with the party membership to make that a likelihood.

Fairfax Media