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.
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.