This week, National received its worst reviews since taking office as Maurice Williamson lost his portfolios and Judith Collins lost her marbles. The halcyon days of presidential golf games and royal baby tours, distracting debates on changes to the country’s flag, even a moment to gloat over Shane Jones ship-jumping treachery: all was lost, forgotten, rendered irrelevant, overwhelmed, subsumed and starved of oxygen by meltdowns, actual, factual and circumstantial Ministerial abuses, conflicts of interests and accusations of cash for Cabinet access. What became clear was that when money talks, even through an interpreter, National listens. And if this narrative takes hold, it could lose the election.
“National is floundering.” writes John Armstrong in the NZ Herald. The wheels are falling off. “ Someone or something has torn up National’s prepared script which was supposed to guarantee the party safe passage to polling day. That plan was designed to take advantage of a series of events in the countdown to the earlier-than-usual poll. These included the Prime Minister’s trip to China in March, April’s weeklong media feeding frenzy courtesy of the future King George VII and his mother, next week’s probably unspectacular, but responsible Budget and an as-yet-to-be-confirmed prime ministerial visit to the White House. These election-year distractions would keep the media focused anywhere but on Labour, starving that party of the oxygen of publicity. National, meanwhile, would project a business-as-usual image of a safe-pair-of-hands governing party, such that there would be little for voters to get excited about and continuity would be the name of the game by the time election day arrived. But things have suddenly gone awry for National.”
So who tore up the script? According to Armstrong, “two ministers of long experience… who are not short of political acumen”. That’s right, Judith and Maurice, with over 40 years of political acumen between them. The Queen of Twitter and the King of Gay Rainbows. Both “have fallen from grace, having exhibited all the symptoms of classic Beehive arrogance and behaved like stereotypical born-to-rule Tories.” Maurice fell on his sword. After his appearance on Q & A, he cast a somewhat broken figure, requiring assistance to leave the set.
No so Judith. Incensed by the demise of her friend and colleague, she gave TV3’s Brook Sabin a piece of her mind in an interview that made specific allegations and general threats against the press. Stung by a media hornet, Judith sought revenge by kicking over the nest. Unsurprisingly, the hornets had something to say about this.
“Threat to dish dirt on journalists a step too far for PM, who does not want an election-year war with the media.” was the headline for Fran O’Sullivan’s response in the NZ Herald. “Right now Cabinet minister Judith Collins is deservedly a busted flush. Collins still holds sway among a considerable faction of the National Party membership. But her imperious arrogance – disgracefully on show when she threatened to dish the dirt on political journalists at the weekend – was a step too far for John Key, who does not want his Government to be embroiled by an undisciplined minister in an election-year war with the media. That issue – rather than the slow striptease over Collins’ cosy meetings with her friends from Oravida during her controversial trip to China last year – is what pushed Key to the point where he applied the choke chain to the Cabinet’s Rottweiler. Pity Key didn’t yank the chain earlier.”
O’Sullivan’s savaging goes on. “The nation’s top chief executives delivered their verdict on Collins two years ago when they permanently marked her down and out of the top Cabinet rankings in the Herald’s 2012 Mood of the Boardroom survey. Their perception was that Collins was a bully. She was perceived to have axed the highly respected John Judge as chairman of ACC by hanging him out to dry over some inhouse bungling during the Bronwyn Pullar affair.”
Fran then goes on to join the dots. “The same behaviour has permeated the Oravida affair. Collins is a senior minister. Her husband is a director of Oravida. Her friends Devi (Stone) Shi and JuliaXu are founder/owner and executive director respectively. Oravida – which exports fresh milk to China – found itself locked out of the Chinese market in the wake of the Fonterra false botulism scare. It was still locked out when Collins went out of her way to meet up with Shi and Xu three times during a trip to China on justice portfolio issues. Of course her presence at the “private dinner” conferred considerable status on Shi. That would have been noted. It’s not surprising that Ambassador Carl Worker exercised his judgment and turned down an invitation from her to join the dinner. This was after all a time when Oravida’s competitors – and a host of New Zealand infant milk exporters – were facing a lockout from the China market. Most of them are still locked out. As is one of Oravida’s competitors, although Oravida is back exporting.” Ancient grudges. Damning stuff.
On Radio Live, Duncan Garner did not hold back in his opinion piece ‘ JUDITH COLLINS ‘UNHINGED AND OUT OF CONTROL’. ” Let’s be really clear: Collins yesterday lost the plot. She was unhinged. She was a bully. She plays this passive-aggressive game of threats. It’s no way to act as a Minister. In my opinion, she’s no longer fit for her ministerial warrant. She now looks ‘un-ministerial’. The Oravida mess has got to her. And she’s to blame. No one else….Every Prime Minister dreads a Minister at war with the press, especially in election year. What on earth has got into Collins? She’s no bigger than her Government, but she’s acting like it. Collins has now bought a fight. And the Press Gallery is a strange beast – it loves a target.”
Like Fran O’Sullivan, Garner states the obvious. “The truth is, her story about what she was doing in China with Oravida has completely collapsed. She has lost all credibility. What started as a pop-in cup of milk and a private dinner turns out to be a turbo-blasted official dinner involving both Governments, their officials, a senior Minister (Collins) and a National party donor (Oravida). Collins presented it totally differently and she’s been found out, case closed. She didn’t tell the truth to the PM – she misled him, she misled Parliament and she misled you, the voter.”
In Metro, Steve Braunias had to revisit his 4 000 word profile on Judith. In ‘The Queen is Dead’, he writes “Her bizarre and self-destructive rant to TV3’s Brooke Sabin in the weekend has led to Prime Minister John Key instructing her to take stress leave. The pressure from the Oravida scandal finally got to her. I looked at her face when she shot her mouth off to Sabin and saw someone unstable, someone on the verge of a kind of nervous collapse…All throughout the Oravida scandal, she has acted paranoid, all weeping and accusatory, the cliché of a bully who can hand it out but can’t take it.” Remember, this is the Minister of Justice he is talking about.
Aside from Cameron Slater and Rachel Glucina, only one journalist offered any kind of solace. In the NZ Herald, John Roughan found it “Hard to see conflict of interest’. John’s bogus view was that it was the Cabinet Manual that was out of line, not the Minister. “The case against Judith Collins seems to be that a minister should not help a company in which she has a personal interest even when doing so is also in the national interest. Is that really the rule? It seems so. The Cabinet Manual says, “A conflict may arise if people close to a minister, such as a minister’s family, whanau or close associates may derive, or be perceived as deriving, some personal financial or other benefit from a decision or action by the minister …” It makes no distinction between an action that accords with the national interest and one that is in conflict with it. It may need updating. Exporters to China are dealing with a business and bureaucratic culture that has not fully emerged from communism and is accustomed to the ruling party playing a leading role in industry at all levels. The line between public and private enterprise is much less clear than it is here.”
The line between public and private enterprise. Where to draw it? Unless it is clarified and rigorously enforced, the allure of Chinese money will prove too strong and, in New Zealand, political corruption will become a syndrome.