OPINION: Justice Minister Judith Collins is one strike short of being out.
Her egregious error of judgment over her meetings with Oravida in China – and more importantly by being economical with all the facts by not mentioning a ‘‘private’’ dinner with its boss, her close friend Stone Shi – have seen Prime Minister John Key effectively put her on notice.
It is hard to imagine a clearer ‘‘perception of a conflict of interest’’ if not an actual conflict than this.
Collins has argued Shi is a close friend — close enough to have come around for dinner on Christmas Day – and that has not been a secret. So is Oravida’s managing director Julia Xu, also a friend and Christmas dinner guest.
But that hardly excuses not revealing the dinner to the prime minister, especially with the spotlight on her relationship with Oravida over recent days and weeks and with Key defending her in the House and in public.
What makes it much worse was the presence of an unnamed Chinese border official, even though he was, according to Collins, a friend of Shi.
It raises the bar for the perceptions that Shi, Oravida – and potentially, if only indirectly, her husband David Wong-Tung, who is a director of Oravida – stood to gain from her presence. Being able to wheel out a senior New Zealand Government minister to a dinner with a local official must must have had an impact on the official, even if as Collins insists no Oravida business was discussed at the meal. It is surely for such eventualities that the Cabinet Manual clauses on conflicts of interest, and the need for disclosure, were drafted.
Compounding the problem was Collins’ attempts to downplay her contact with Oravida; a mere cup of tea with milk on the way to the airport to save her the boredom of another 20 minutes in the departure lounge; when it was clear what was being explored was the closeness of her relationship with Oravida.
Her biggest political ‘‘crime’’ though – and the one that has put her close to a third strike and she’s out of Cabinet – is embarrassing her leader.
It has allowed Labour to dredge up Oravida’s significant donations to National as well as the link with fish exporter Sanford, a company part-owned by National president Peter Goodfellow.
Will Key sack her? Extremely unlikely, providing any more revelations are not significant.
She is an able minister and has a coterie of supporters from down the drier and more doctrinaire end of the party – the opposite end of the party to the softer, pragmatic middle of the road approach that Key has deployed to such effect.
To dispatch her now would look like utu against a possible future rival but also move to the backbench a rallying point for future dissent.
Key’s backing in the party and among voters is at stellar levels, but no politician can be sure of popularity in perpetuity.
What is surprising is that it took Key and his chief of staff so long to hold the tell-all meeting with Collins – the one where ministers are told to throw open the closet and disclose all they know, and all that could rebound on the Government.
Perhaps it was Collins’ seniority and her combative approach that delayed the meeting.
Even so Key’s rhetoric had always been careful, framed around the advice the Cabinet Office had given him. The office now acknowledges how that advice may have been misinterpreted to suggest it had translated the Chinese wording on Oravida’s website – the post that first sparked accusations Collins had ‘‘endorsed’’ or ‘‘praised’’ Oravida’s milk.
All very useful for David Cunliffe too. It takes the focus off his mixed messages about the Greens this week and will help put distance between him and his embarrassment last week over donations through a secret trust.
The lift in Labour’s morale yesterday was palpable. For perhaps the first time this year the Opposition was all over the Government in the House.
Key and his party had to suffer an excruciating ‘‘snap debate’’ on the topic.
And then there was the ‘‘own goal’’ question to Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce from his own backbencher Jian Yang.
‘‘How is the Government making it easier, quicker and less complicated for businesses to deal with the Government?’’ It was a question ordained by the God of politics and brought the House down.
- Fairfax Media