So Justice Minister Judith Collins is going to have four or five days off work from her $268,000 a year (plus perks) job; apparently, she feels in need of a breather from the stress of the self-inflicted problems arising from the Oravida scandal. Presumably, Collins won’t be required to furnish Social Development Minister Paula Bennett with a doctor’s certificate in order to remain on full pay while she’s having a sickie. Different rules apply.
Taking Collins off the media radar for a few days may not be enough to save her. At yesterday post-Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister John Key was reduced to some desperate scrambling in her defence. Apparently the fact that MFAT ultimately chose not to attend the fateful Oravida dinner after being invited to do by the Minister – evidently because MFAT felt concerned that its authority may be being used to Oravida’s sole benefit – is to be taken, Key claimed, as evidence that why of course, this had been a private dinner all along. To date, Collins has put the unwise invitation down to ‘over zealous’ work by her own staff. As we see below, it seems to have been a personal invitation to the NZ ambassador, at the Minister’s own request.
Key’s decision to put his own authority on the line to defend Collins is an interesting one. Like General Motors or the Bank of America during the GFC, Judith Collins has evidently been judged as ‘Too Big To Fail’ by the National Party. Again yesterday, gallery journalists were asked to simply accept a situation where yes, Key knows the name of the Chinese official present at the Oravida dinner and the agency that he represented but sees no problem, so…. that’s that. Key wasn’t going to divulge either of these details, on official advice. In essence, the “need” to protect the privacy sensibilities of the Chinese is serving as a convenient excuse to block the release of further damaging links in the chain of circumstanial evidence against Collins…evidence likely to indicate that she used her ministerial authority to sway Chinese officials to the sole financial benefit of the company of which her husband is a director.
Running defence for Collins on this issue is doing Key’s own credibility no good whatsoever. At times yesterday, he looked less like the PM, and more like Lindsay Lohan’s press agent defending her latest DUI, en route to rehab. There is now a gap opening up between what the PM feels happy with concerning Collins’ Oravida activities and explanations, and the paper trail of evidence that is gradually accumulating. Rob Salmond’s Polity blog – which has rapidly become a ‘must read’ outlet – has pinpointed a damningly relevant document from last Friday’s OIA document drop. The full file of documents is available here.
Note the interest expressed in several emails from the Minister’s office about including Stone Shi and Julia Xu of Oravida in the itinerary – which culminates in an invitation from Oravida for the Minister to visit their premises. Note also the 10 October email where MFAT advises about this visit: “One thing that you should be aware of is that the Ovavida office is out at Hangquiao airport. This is to be expected, given their business, but will add considerable time to the Minister’s programme.” So much for Collins’ subsequent claim that she just popped in for ‘a cup of tea’ en route.
The particularly relevant document – reprinted on Salmond’s blog and available at page 83 in the document drop linked to above, and which explicitly sets out an aim of the Oravida office visit being “to increase the profile” of the company – sets out an official schedule for this visit and cites a list of attendees. It shows that, contrary to Collins’ protestations, that this visit was part of the official programme. As Salmond puts it:
…Judith Collins’ visit to Oravida was an official, Ministerial visit specifically designed by the New Zealand government to improve Oravida’s, and only Oravida’s, business opportunities in China. That is something Judith Collins is strictly forbidden from doing in her Ministerial capacity, because her husband is a director of the company.
It also means, as Salmond adds, that Collins was misleading both the Prime Minister and Parliament when she told Parliament that:
I can only tell the Prime Minister what I know. I was being driven around and I was assured by the ambassador that we could pop into Oravida on the way to the airport, or else I could have gone to the airport and I could have sat in the lounge for an extra long time.
As for the contentious ‘private’ dinner attended by the Chinese official….in an email dated 16 April 2013, Oravida’s Julia Xu had written to Carl Worker, NZ’s Ambassador to China, apologising for contacting him, after trying to contact X and Y (both names redacted] and trying “her” mobile without success. “I understand they are having a meeting with [redacted] and I’d greatly appreciate if they could mention Oravida’s potential problems under the new import procedures for dairy products.”
Come the Minister’s visit to China in October 2014, and the “private” dinner. A dinner that MFAT advises ambassador Worker by email (p.11) that “Stone Shi has organised directly for the Minister to meet with [redacted] on Sunday evening. She would like you and Connie to attend.” This request causes MFAT some concern and after internal discussion (and several almost entirely redacted pages) the issue is announced to have been “squared away” – and the ambassador would now not attend, and that the dinner would be a “private” one. It seems clear from the email trail that this reversion to being a “private” dinner had only been after pushback by MFAT, after being asked by Collins to lend an ambassadorial presence and authority to the dinner date between Oravida, Collins and the mysterious Chinese official – who may conceivably have been relevant to Oravida’s stated problems with the new import procedures.
All up, Collins has done more than enough to deserve being sacked. Has she been deemed Too Big Too Fail?