While Judith Collins was in China, she perhaps should have read some Sun Tzu: “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”
It's a new week, and so the beginning of a new political era. Why, then, am I bothering going all the way back to the ancient past of the start of the month, in order to write about Judith Collins' by-now-infamous and well-raked-over troubled trip to China last year?
Well, partly it's because I didn't write about it at the time, so better late than never. And partly it's because, Tim's fine post notwithstanding, I haven't read anything that quite reflects my own thinking about what happened. So here goes.
I have to admit that, when the story first emerged as "Collins went to some company's office and tasted their milk", I was underwhelmed. Yes, yes, I know her husband is on the board of the company in question. And yes, I know that the company then did something they apparently were warned against and used a quote from Collins (in Mandarin) that appeared to praise the product.
However, it didn't look like all that much to me. More a case of a company getting cute and pushing the boundaries than the Minister in question doing anything particularly wrong. So when John Key came out and said that the Cabinet Office had cleared Collins, I shrugged and thought "no real surprise there."
But all credit to Labour, and to Grant Robertson in particular, for sensing there was something more than we first were seeing. (Which is why he does what he does and I couldn't, I guess!) Because, once things started to unravel, they did so pretty spectacularly.
First, it turned out that the "clearance" given by the Cabinet Office hadn't actually considered the key point at issue - the apparent "endorsement" that Collins had made of the company's product. Which hinted that perhaps Key had shared in my assumption that there really was nothing to see here, and so hadn't pushed very hard for answers to the questions Labour was raising.
Second, once Key decided that perhaps there might be something to be worried about and sent his Chief-of-Staff out specifically to look for those answers, it turned out that Collins hadn't been entirely forthcoming with him. It wasn't just that she'd dropped in on the offices of the company in question (Oravida), but she'd had an earlier "private" dinner with her personal friends Stone Shi, Oravida's founder, and Julia Xu, its managing director - who were accompanied by their personal friend, a senior Chinese border control official. And because that dinner was "private", she hadn't thought it necessary to mention it to anyone until now.
A lot of the analysis of this issue has focused on this last lapse, along the lines of that Collins' real mistake was not putting all the facts out on the table at the outset and thereby avoiding hanging her leader out to dry. And sure, that was a dumb thing to do - the only mistake that I think she's "apologised" for. But even if she had followed the "crisis management 101" playbook to the letter, I still think that her judgment around the actual events in quesitons could legitimately be strongly questioned.
I'm not really an expert on doing business in the culturally-fraught and "alien" context that China represents to us sai yan. But I think I know enough to understand that a Chinese dinner isn't necessarily just "a pleasant social event at which food is consumed and anecdotes told". And so, if I were a Minister of the Crown who had arranged to dine with a couple of personal friends who are in the milk import-export business, only to arrive at the dinner and find a Chinese official involved in border control unexpectedly was joining us, alarm bells would begin hammering away in my head.
There may, of course, be little you could do at that point. To walk away from the table would not only be hurtful to friends, but insulting to their guest. And you don't want to be responsible for killing off a by all accounts successful New Zealand business, much less possibly creating a full-blown diplomatic incident. But, it seems to me, you'd have to be pretty much an idiot not to think "oh dear, this could all be a bit awkward." And if there's one thing that Judith Collins is not, it's an idiot.
Collins' assurances that no policy matters were discussed at the meal are then a bit beside the point. Of course, it's good that her friends at Oravida didn't do anything so crass as to say "perhaps you and our friend here could work out a way to make our product movement problems go away?". But somehow I doubt they rose to their current level of business success by being that crass. Instead, it's a matter of relationships made and displayed. So, by demonstrating their close personal connection with one of the more senior members of the NZ Government, the Oravida bosses were sending out signals that only those enmeshed in a system of guanxi could properly decode.
So, again, if I were a Minister of the Crown who had found herself in such a position, there's a couple of things I'd like to think that I'd have done. The first is get in touch with my friends at Oravida to thank them for a lovely evening, whilst also (in the nicest possible way) telling them not to put me in such a position again. The second is to avoid doubling down on any perception problems my dinner already may have created by deciding that there really wasn't any time on my trip to the airport to call in on Oravida's offices, no matter how much I might have been thirsting for a cup of tea at the time.
And I think it's pretty likely that, despite Collins' refusal to outright say so, she knows she stuffed this up. The decision not to tell the PM about her earlier dinner for a week is pretty much unaccountable unless she knew what it would look like once it hit the papers. It also seems pretty clear to me that the only reason she eventually 'fessed up to it is that had she not, and then it came out subsequently, she would be politically toast. As it is, the delay has wounded her - but not as fatally as silence in the face of direct questions from the PM would have.
So what can we take away from this episode? A few things. First of all, Collins will need to rethink just how she's going to deal with the fact that her husband has a successful, independent professional life. It means there are some things she might like to do that she really ought not to. For starters, Tim's suggestion that "the obvious answer for politicians is to leave the visits and praise to colleagues who aren't directly related to or close friends of those involved in the company" seems like a pretty good one to take. After all, Oravida doesn't seem to have a lot of trouble attracting supportive attention from Collins' colleagues, so there's no real need for her to add her name to that list.
Second, China is a market that offers both opportunities and challenges to New Zealand. The opportunities are pretty obvious - over a billion consumers who are learning to want what we can provide. The challenges are becoming equally obvious, as we learn that what we here in New Zealand view as "normal" and "proper" conduct isn't necessarily a universal truth. And a business culture where interpersonal connections and relationships based on reciprocity and obligation are very, very important is one that poses special risks for politicians whom we expect to abide by norms of disinterested impartiality. I suspect that's a conflict that's going to occur over and over again in our future.
Finally, black swans exist. A couple of weeks ago, the election looked just about done and dusted. Cunliffe was screwing up. The polls had taken against the Greens. But what Collins' escapades reminds us is that even the apparently strongest political figures are still human, and that Governments can lose elections through being stupid, being arrogant, or being incompetent. If National keeps on doing all three at once, then it'll be game on again.