Ministers are responsible for ensuring that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty. Ministers must conduct themselves at all times in the knowledge that their role is a public one; appearances and propriety can be as important as an actual conflict of interest. Ministers should avoid situations in which they or those close to them gain remuneration or other advantage from information acquired only by reason of their office.
New Zealand Cabinet Manual
IN OCTOBER 2013, the Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, travelled to the Chinese city of Shanghai as a representative of the New Zealand Government. Among her many engagements in China’s largest city was a visit to the Oravida (Shanghai) Food Co. Ms Collins was responding to an invitation from Oravida’s Chairman, Mr Stone Shi.
In his letter to the Minister, dated 9 October 2013, Mr Shi states:
“We would be honoured for you to visit us in Shanghai on the 23 October, 2013, during your official trip to Shanghai, to witness our development, and our commitment, to branding and building a reputation for New Zealand products.”
Ms Collins already knew a great deal about the Oravida Food Co.
As Mr Shi proudly points out in his letter, the company has its New Zealand headquarters “in one of Auckland’s premier CBD buildings”. Among the invited guests at the official opening of Oravida’s high-end office space was the wife of David Wong-Tung – one of the company’s three-member Board of Directors. Her name? Judith Collins, Minister of Justice in the National Party-led government of Prime Minister, John Key.
It is unclear whether, at the time of the opening, 7 October, 2013, Mr Wong-Tung and his wife were aware that in 2011 the Oravida Food Co. had donated the sum of $55,000 towards the National Party’s re-election. What we do know, however, is that Mr Shi’s letter of invitation was sent to Ms Collins just 48 hours after she had assisted Oravida’s executives snip the red ribbon as part of the opening ceremony of its new Auckland premises.
Sixteen days later, Ms Collins was photographed among the proud employees of Oravida (Shanghai) Food Co. Photographs taken during the visit are still viewable on the company’s website. http://www.oravida.com/lwl/
“The Honorable Judith Collins, Minister of Justice, ACC and Ethnic Affairs, His excellency, Ambassador Carl Walker visited Oravida Shanghai office upon company’s invitation. As a NZ company committed to branding NZ’s premium food products and developing the distribution channels in China for these products, Oravida has been at the forefront of advocating food ‘made in NZ’. Both Minister Collins and Ambassador Walker recognized company’s efforts, congratulated us on what we have achieved and encouraged us to continue building NZ’s premium food reputation in China.”
It would be rare indeed for the Chinese state or organise a ministerial visit in just two weeks. We must, therefore, assume that Ms Collins knew she would be in Shanghai in late October 2013. Did she and her husband discuss her impending visit with Mr Shi? Is that why he moved so swiftly to issue his invitation? From the very beginning, is it not reasonable to suppose that the visit was conceived and stage-managed by Oravida as a valuable branding opportunity? An opportunity Ms Collins and her husband were only too happy to facilitate?
Labour’s Grant Robertson certainly thinks so. He has dismissed Ms Collins attempt to pass off her Oravida Shanghai visit as “to actually have a cup of tea on the way to the airport”. Describing her explanation as “far from the truth”, Robertson accuses both the Justice Minister and the Prime Minister of failing to uphold the conflict-of-interest provisions of the Cabinet Manual.
Not true! Not true! Insists the PM. The Cabinet Secretary has evaluated Ms Collins’ actions in Shanghai and determined that no breach of the Cabinet Manual guidelines concerning conflicts-of-interest has occurred. Politicians from across the parliamentary opposition have demanded to see the Cabinet Secretary’s report – so far without success.
Which is unfortunate, because with each additional revelation the case against Ms Collins gathers strength. Mr Shi’s letter is one such example, but there are others.
In Robertson’s own words:
“Strangely Judith Collins’ report on her [October 2013] trip fails to mention her visit to Oravida. This is despite her report on her June  visit to China noting companies she had met with.”
Ms Collin’s response to her critics has been typically robust. Indeed, so unapologetic and uncompromising has she been in defence of her own actions (and of every Cabinet Ministers’ duty to promote New Zealand’s vitally important dairy industry) that Media Training NZ is holding up her performance as a “faultless” example of how to remain on the front foot:
“When asked if there was a conflict of interest, she responded with something like: ‘Every New Zealand voter should expect every MP to promote all New Zealand businesses overseas.’
“If she had fallen into the trap of using the language of denial, the story would have been negative and she would have seemed defensive. This would have happened if she had said something like: ‘I have not breached the Cabinet Manual with this visit.’ That answer would have given the reporters a great negative quote to use, and focus the story totally on her denial. But by answering that question with the positive statement quoted above, she came across as a pro-active Minister who was only concerned about promoting her country.”
A truly astonishing observation with which to end this summation of Ms Collins’ story. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more telling example of everything that has gone wrong with New Zealand politics and New Zealand politicians.
Speculation that there has been a serious breach of the Cabinet Manual guidelines: that a Cabinet Minister may knowingly have promoted a Chinese company in which her own husband holds a pecuniary interest; a company which, three years ago, is known to have contributed a substantial sum to the re-election of the governing party of New Zealand; is now nothing more than “negative” communication – to be dispelled by the “pro-active” deployment of a cleverly worded “positive statement”.