All In The Family

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In a week when the Prime Minister announced an early election and proposed a flag referendum, a commercial airliner vanished into thin air, a South African paralympian stood trial for murder and Russia amassed forces on the Crimean border, it was some feat for Judith Collins to hit the headlines. But hit them she did.

A nation was riveted as the Minister of Justice, widely touted as National’s next leader, a woman who revelled in her reputation as ‘Crusher Collins’, the same woman who only last month  pitilessly and publicly lambasted a fellow-parliamentarian for her ‘vile’ fashion choices began to unravel, side-step, back-flip, and finally break down in tears. “I am also only a human being” she told the Breakfast show. “We all make mistakes”. The exact scope of those mistakes and their consequences, for Collins and for National, remain to be seen. So far, they haven’t been a good look. In the NZ Herald, ‘Sleazy’ was the word that came to Bryce Edwards’ mind.

The facts suggest Collins, as Minister of Justice, visited China in October 2013 on official tax-payer-funded business.  So far, so good. However, after hours or ‘on her way to the airport’, she also spent facetime in the presence of Oravida executives and a Chinese border official, or sampling the Company’s wares, appearing on their website endorsing (or ‘promoting’) said wares. And as we all now know, Ms Collins husband is one of three directors of Oravida. Upon her return to New Zealand, Collins mentioned nothing of her extra-curricular activities. After all, these people were her and her husband’s close personal friends.

The problem for Judith, then and now, is a little book called the Cabinet Manual which provides strict guidelines for actual and perceived conflicts of interest. Unsurprisingly (except for Judith) these guidelines apply most particularly to close personal friends and husbands. Any law student is familiar with the mantra “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Over this week, the full story trickled (or according to cartoonist Emmerson, was waterboarded) out of the Minister of Justice. The opposition and the media smelt blood. It was a feeding frenzy.

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Two opinion pieces by Duncan Garner for Radio Live are perhaps the most damning. According to Garner, ‘Judith Collins Must Go’: “Judith Collins has been caught out not telling the truth. She has misled the New Zealand public; she has misled her boss the Prime Minister; and her best defence is that she lied to us, by omission. It is simply not good enough. She is no longer fit to be a Minister, she has failed the truth test. I have been saying this for a week now: She did not just pop in to Oravida, she planned it weeks out. Now, we know she had a top level dinner and meeting with Oravida bosses and a senior official from the Chinese Government, all in a private capacity. There is no such thing when you are representing NZ as a Minister overseas.Remember, her husband is a director of this firm. That’s the conflict. The Collins family stands to gain from the success of this company. You don’t just forget this sort of detail, you hold it back on purpose, and that’s what she has done. I have always said when you put a Minister or MP in a tight spot, their default setting is to lie. They do not tell the truth and this is what has happened here. Collins has once again proven my theory correct. She has misled the NZ public and that’s not acceptable. She has lost the confidence of a nation. She has misled the PM – and that’s where it always used to get terminal for Ministers with Helen Clark in charge. But John Key has decided to tough this one out. It’s the wrong decision. He should sack her. He sacked Nick Smith for less in my opinion. Collins simply tried to bluff us, but she has failed and she has been caught out. She’s not indispensable. Her reputation is shot. It’s clear the Chinese saw her visit and subsequent website appearance as an ‘endorsement’. But the Prime Minister continues to claim it was just a ‘promotion’. There is absolutely no difference. It’s the same thing. It’s semantics Prime Minister. The John Key of old would have crucified Helen Clark for such garbage. He needs to step back and see this for what it is. He has been implicated in Judith Collins’s web of deceit. She has misled Kiwis and she has misled the Prime Minister. She is no longer fit to hold the warrant as Justice Minister. I can’t say it anymore direct than this: She should be sacked.”

Garner goes on in “Clark Sacked Ministers for Lying” : “John Key won’t like this, but by Helen Clark’s standards he looks weak. He was lied to by Judith Collins; the best spin you can put on it is that she lied by mission or misled by omission. Take your pick; it’s all semantics. She went to China as Justice Minister for ‘anti-corruption’ business, but ended up meeting Oravida bosses three times – including that ‘secret’ dinner involving a senior Chinese border official. Wow, I bet all Kiwi exporters struggling in China would love that sort of access and help, wouldn’t they? Oravida needs access to China. She was clearly helping her husband’s business, while being paid by the taxpayer to be Justice Minister. Yet she failed to declare this to the Prime Minister and in her report to the Cabinet. It’s a sackable offence. You NEVER mislead the PM. Ever.”

For TV3, Patrick Gower has valiantly and doggedly fronted the story: “Why is John Key scared of Judith Collins? Key has let Collins get off absolutely scot-free after she used her public job to promote her private interests. Collins used the taxpayer’s dime and the privilege of Ministerial office to help out the company her husband works for, Oravida in Shanghai. Most Kiwis would say that just isn’t right. But Key has let it go, not even giving Collins the old cliché of a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket? Is Key scared of Collins?”

For Garner and Gower, using your public job to promote your private interests is a sackable offence. A counter-argument is hard, if not impossible to mount. For the Minister of Justice, therein lies the rub.

If Judith was looking for a softer touch from usually stalwart supporters, it was not forthcoming. In ‘Collins’ shock blunder puts her offside with mates’ (NZ Herald), even John Armstrong struggles to find an upside: “Excuse me, but isn’t Judith Collins the Minister of Justice? Doesn’t holding that portfolio make it even more incumbent on her to follow the rules in the Cabinet Manual to the letter, and especially with regard to something as fundamental as avoiding any suggestion of conflict of interest, real or perceived? Isn’t it even more desirable that the Justice Minister set an example and be pure as the driven snow in ensuring there is no confusion of her official role with private business – rather than trying to argue that her dealings with the milk-exporting company Oravida did not create even the perception of a conflict of interest when her husband’s directorship in the company leads inexorably and inevitably to such a conclusion?”

In the same paper, Fran O’Sullivan is equally fulsome in her condemnation, writing that “Other ministers have vanished for similar lapses of judgment”. She goes on: “It was one thing for this supremely self-confident Cabinet minister to unquestioningly accept an invitation from the Auckland-headquartered company to visit its Shanghai office and drink a glass of the fresh milk it imports from New Zealand. That was already out of line given her husband David Wong-Tung happens to be an Oravida director. The Prime Minister resorted to semantics when he let Collins off the hook by deeming her effusive praise of the milk – now taken down from Oravida’s Chinese website – as merely a “promotion” rather than an “endorsement”. Key brushed that issue aside. But the Cabinet minister’s decision to accept co-founder Stone Shi’s invitation to join him, co-founder and managing director Julia Xu and a high-ranking Chinese border official for a so-called private dinner during the same trip broke the line. Particularly when Collins did not even disclose the dinner – nor the name of this high-ranking Chinese official – in her subsequent report to the Cabinet.” O’Sullivan is not optimistic for Judith’s oft-mentioned political ambitions: “Collins’ slow political strip-tease over her connections with Oravida has indelibly pricked the credibility of this tough female Cabinet minister.”

In The Listener, Jane Clifton holds similar views on Judith’s future prospects (Crusher’s calamity): “But the whole point of the transparency rules and conventions that Collins so insouciantly flouted was that there could have been mischief. As a result of ignoring those rules, Collins now faces utterly unmanageable political risks downstream, in terms of Oravida’s future fortunes in China and how they are perceived to have come about. She can be as innocent as a spring lamb in a garland of daffodils, but this is now all about perception, and politicians never get the benefit of the doubt. The very fact that Oravida is run by two of Collins’ closest friends and her husband should have mandated that she not associate with the company in her ministerial capacity – for her own reputational protection. This might seem overly cautious, as the four socialise personally while at home. But when you’ve got your ministerial hat on, you can’t be anyone’s friend as such. As for failing to disclose the lunch and dinner meetings, including her socialising with a senior Chinese border official, that was so foolish as to be almost surreal, considering Collins’ reputation as a laser-focused political barracuda.”

Adam Bennett reports that ” Justice Minister Judith Collins said yesterday she would resign if it was proved she lobbied a Chinese official on behalf of food exporter Oravida at a dinner in Beijing last year.” (NZ Herald). But as Jane Clifton writes above, we’re in the land of perception now and already, other exporters to China have weighed in about what is perceived as lobbying.

Under the headline ‘Collins’ dinner great for Oravida’, the NZ Herald reports that “Paul O’Brien, the former boss of Auckland-based EasiYo, which exports around $12 million worth of yoghurt in powder form to China annually, said getting all dairy products into the Chinese market had become much more difficult after Fonterra’s botulism false alarm last year and introducing a border control official to a Government Minister would “absolutely” make the process easier and help “smooth the way” for Oravida. “It enhances your own credibility, because if you can get an MP along you are held in high esteem,” O’Brien said. “I would absolutely milk it wherever I could.” He said doing business in China was extremely “relationship based”. “If your container is stuck, you just go up the chain of command in the Government and someone will get it released,” said O’Brien, who left EasiYo in December. Collins has said she only discussed tourism matters at the dinner and Oravida would not have gained any benefit from the meeting. But O’Brien said just the Minister’s presence at the dinner would have benefited the milk firm. “You don’t actually go to these meetings to beat [the officials’] heads to get a tariff reduction or get some goods over the line – it’s all just relationship building.” Chinese officials could even be offended if specific business issues were raised at such an engagement, O’Brien said.”

In most jurisdictions, ‘smoothing the way’ is called lobbying. In most jurisdictions, ‘making the process easier’ is called lobbying. The fact of the dinner is enough. It’s the guest list that matters not the content of the conversation.  “Just the Minister’s presence at the dinner would have benefited the milk firm”. For once, Judith didn’t even have to say a word. She just had to turn up. And she did.

Audrey Young (NZ Herald) suggests that “National’s Boadicea (is) likely to shrug off her week from hell”. Given that it’s an election year, given that Ms Collins has stood on many fingers as she ascended the political ladder, and given that her own actions and omissions have exposed her to more than the risk of a perception of conflict of interest, it seems highly unlikely Boadicea will be able to keep this all in the family.

24 COMMENTS

  1. An excellent summation.

    And Simon, you’re 100% correct. Helen Clark would have nailed Collins’ butt to the wall had she been one of her Ministers.

    By failing to act decisively as he did with Richard Worth and Pansy Wong, he has shown himself to be weak and guided by double-standards. Any reputation he may’ve had for “no nonsense” has been shattered.

    As fort why Collins thought she’s get away withn it?

    My guess is that Key’s own dealings with Mediaworks, Rio Tinto, Warner Bros, and Skycity – many involving “dinner events” – led her to believe that such deal-making was now the norm. Collins’ leader has shown the way and she followed.

    Key’s own track record is dodgy to say the least: http://fmacskasy.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/doing-the-business-with-john-key-heres-how/

    • As for dinners, when dealing with Asians they are important. This is how a lot of them conduct their business. This is what John Key will be doing this week. When in Rome and all that.

      • Yes they do, but the CP will do nasty things to you if that dinner is seen as corruption or feathering of ones own nest. This new Premier has a new set of rules, and Judith crossed them. Key will look very weak sitting at the table this week.

  2. Good post Collins smug arrogance got her into trouble wether the damage is terminal remains to be seeen

  3. Collins did not actually apologise for this. She only apologised for not “widening her explanation”. Then she makes a play for our sympathy. Key keeps trying to mislead the public by claiming it is about “perception”. No it is not. They are both being blatantly dishonest. This is a clear and definite conflict of interest. The Justice Minsiter has broken the rules. She is being dishonest and immoral. Not fit to be Justice Minister of all things.

  4. The whole saga illustrates that there is no right wing conspiracy controlling the media though. Both Duncan Garner and Patrick Gower have been scathing against National on this issue.

    • What total arse Gosman. The ‘balance’ only occurred after the feeding frenzy on Cunliffe and the need to look balanced when Judith Collins stuffed up as royally as she did required it.

      • Martyn, are you aware the Herald is polling at the moment. In your view is this purely coincidence or should something more be read into it.

    • Yeah this new fangled “balance” thing that popped up out of nowhere almost seems a wee bit too contrived.

  5. Exactly Martyn . Excellent Post Simon Prast .

    And our politicians are so graceless and without elegance that they can’t even fake a kindness to the citizens who vote them in and / or pay their salaries while they’re ripping them off . A vulgar Kiwi hallmark . A bush singlet approach to corruption . collins is a bully and a thug and she should just fuck right off .

  6. I wasn’t too long ago that IRD was chasing people who were going on 5 day business trips and having the two day weekend at the end paid for by the business. Unpaid fringe benefit tax and incorrect deduction of expenses were the reasons.
    There are similar issues with Ms. Collins’ China trip.
    Perhaps IRD or Parliamentary Services could look at her time allocated to private interests during the trip and ask Judith to repay the portion that she has rorted.
    Surely Collins, as a sensitive human being, would not want to be taking advantage of others’ hard earned tax money.

    • and yet there she is – prominent on both the heralds and stuffs politics pages

      its funny how many righties dont seem to mind a bit of corruption from their own.

      “please look over there!” they all cried

      didnt we once have a march that featured swastikas and it was about shower heads, light bulbs, political funding and women wearing trousers?

      • Collins should resign as the perception of inappropriate behavior is almost as bad as actual inappropriate behavior. However both sides tend to support their own when this sort of stuff comes up. How long did Labour continue to back Winston Peters for again?

      • It’s stretching it a it to call this ‘corruption’, and more than signing a painting you didn’t paint is corrupt. Stupid, yes. Corrupt, no.

        • collins had “a drink of milk” at a planned and promoted visit to a company with strong financial ties to national MPs personal wealth, where her husband stands to make good coin if the company does well in a country where such visits are seen as highly favourable to that company – all in her capacity as justice minister, not trade minister, on a taxpayer funded trip

          oh – and she had a private dinner with said company and chinese border offficials

          are you really going to say thats not looking even a little bit corrupt? – and as for the tired old paintergate – for that to even be remotely equivalant please point out where helen clarke, her family or any labour mp stood to personally gain from the incident

          paintergate was technically fraud you dunce, and it was fraud for charitable purposes – not corruption. Im not excusing it, but christs sake! They arent even the same potential crime

          your really looking quite pathetic with your continued defense of MPs enriching themselves/their families/their colleagues at our expense.

  7. Why was and why would the New Zealand Justice Minister visit China? Our justice systems bear no resemblance whatsoever and are almost at odds with each other. I cant see a good reason at all.

    And yet Mojo Mathers gets character assassinated by the Taxpayers Union for going to Masterton “because she was doing a radio interview for a station that represents disabled people, and says it’s easier for her to do these interviews in person”

    In other words she was doing her job and none to surprising either given she is has some knowledge in that area.

    Where are you now Taxpayer Union??

  8. The joke or irony of all this is with the Ministry of Trade & Enterprise, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, and some Customs officials all housed in Oravida’s flash building on Auckland’s waterfront, why did they need to waste time talking to Judith Collins. Very clever of Oravida to attract all Government Departments that would be of assistance to them to their building while at the same time picking up the rent!

  9. Collins,,”Turns out not to be the sharpest knife in the draw ,,”Our politicaians swear to uphold the consititution,,”Should blatant lies and even half truths therefore be considered as the equivalent of perjury,,”How much obvious can it be wathching this crap on TV ,,”It looks like an free election advertisement ,,”Lying is wrong ,,”After all Collins is a gofer controlled by a remote that Key holds,,”It should be a criminal offence for this type of lying especially in a government position where people are expected to be a statesperson ,,”Of course big business is allways lying,,” However this commercial on my TV is a joke and its pulled the (milk )over the eyes of the voters by letting it ride ,,,”It would be nice if authority could be truthful or at least try to be truthfull ,,”((The bible says its wrong to lie)) ,,”In general the voting population in New Zealand is so uninformed about the insurance scam happening in the City of Christchurch by the government and are totally unaware of the cons and lies being told to them by politicians ,,”Sneakily worked half truths that have become so common place in there political campaign for 2014 ,,”Lying under oath is a crime ,,”Its called perjury,,”As far as I’m concerned as soon as an elected politicain puts his / her hand on the bible and swears to uphold the consitution they should be considered under oath untill the day they leave office and everything they say to their constituents should be used against them in a court of law if need be ,,”However ,,”Collins being a gofer for Key ,,”( ”I have come to the conclusion like the people of Christchurch without the support of all our country we are fighting a battle long lost,) ”As long as there is so much money at stake for politicians as well as their benefactors ,,( ”Special interest ),what value would there be in them saying they can’t lie,? ”Lying cheating and stealing is already unlawful but they do it with inpunity ,,”Untill we figure out a way to get rid of greed they will always lie and steal ,,”I don’t think you can make it a crime for someone to lie that’s not under oath but these guys and girls are ,,”Again I think politicians are accountable ,,”Certainly they should be accountable for this misleading action promissory estoppels or fraud,,” How do you separate the lies from misinformation or ones misperception ,,”This is dishonesty about real facts before one opens ones mouth,,”This is chicken shit to whats happening in the City of Christchurch and it would help us if the media ,,”Fairness ) would be a good start and would strike a fundamental fighting core value back into the City ,,”We need air time interviews right now on the facts,,’ If you see (Suncorp Brisbane (vero) EQC,,Lumley,,insurance,Benson and Westpac Banking Brokers on your way to vote tell them 2010,, 201415 has gone we are still waiting on help and funding to rebuild our fully insured factories and apartments in the CBD , Get back to real work with staff again ,Names like ,,vero ,Westpac ??”Whats going on ,!? ”’Sorry I hav’nt more time to spend on this tonight,,! ,,,, Noah,,

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