The timelines are damning, the hits this week revealing. But in the end none of it matters, because it all comes back to that dinner and what we knew months ago

So Judith Collins survives her 48 hours on the cliff's edge and heads off on holidy with the title "honourable" still in front of her name. Which is hardly surprising really, because while all the MFAT documents clarify and compound, they don't convict.

Having said that, the sequence of events is damning. Or the coincidence is really bad luck for National. Brook Sabin put together a timeline  for 3News covering the period from Oravida's trouble getting product into China, through the Collins' meetings and to the donation from Oravida to National.

Earlier in the day Rob Salmond over at Polity did a very useful run through of the 12 days in October when Collins' office was arranging the China trip. It's clear that the Oravida events were initiated by Collins' office and resisted by MFAT. The line between public and private looks very blurry indeed.

So why is Collins still a minister? Three big reasons.

The first is that Collins, Key and National in general can bat all this away as circumstantial and coincidental. There's plausible deniability throughout. Collins says it was her strong-willed office staff who got carried away. That the donation wasn't linked to her intercession in China. That well before the trip she had it on the record that the Oravida dinner with the border control agent was private.

Everything in the order of events is suspicious and raises questions about favours done, but there's a lack of sufficient proof to convict.

That's because of the second reason - so much of the MFAT material is redacted. Without names crucial details can't be judged one way or the other.

Third, and crucially, the damning pile of circumstantial evidence against Collins that suggests she did have a conflict of interest has come out over months. Here's the reality - if what we know now was known when this story first broke, she'd be gone. But as each ball thrown has been deflected, the government has had time to circle the wagons and the story to be diluted.

If it had come in a flood, a resignation would have been almost impossible to resist.

However Collins' opponents should not be too disappointed by this. The political reality is that she's much more use to them half-finished than completely written off. And Key must be kicking himself for letting it come to this. If he'd be tougher initially, he wouldn't be having to endlessly spray air freshener on the stench around Collins. Now seen through the Maurice Williamson prism, this looks especially bad for National, yet is forced to defend her day after day, news cycle after news cycle.

Did anyone pay attention to the Prime Minister's pre-Budget speech this week? Thought not.

But to be fair to Collins, there's nothing definitive in the past week's revelations that warrant a change of tack by Key. Having taken the stand he did, his position this week has been entirely consistent.

But it's still wrong. The fact is that this week's revelations don't really matter because it all really comes down to the simple fact of the "private dinner" itself. The sackable offence was clear to see months ago and nothing we've learnt this week makes it any less or more so.

By going to that dinner, Collins was either knowingly helping friends and family or was being used by them. It was a conflict of interest either way. She didn't have to say a word to that border official for Oravida to get its pound of flesh from her. Her mere presence was about prestige; as soon as the Oravida folk at the dinner said "and this is our dear friend, Minister Judith Collins" her work there was done, whether she went on to talk about border issues or not. It was a sign that Oravida could be trusted as an importer because it had friends in high places. The company of which her husband is a director, the company her close friends founded, got a substantial boost because of a meeting she took on a taxpayer-funded trip to China in her capacity as Justice Minister.

Yet Collins stubbornly refuses to get the implications this, publically at least. Very early on, her line to media was that as a minister it was her job to champion New Zealand businesses overseas. Key repeated that line at the time. But Collins also asked, with her usual brashness, if journalists were really saying that just because her husband was a director and her friends ran the business that she shouldn't visit this company and help them along? It was her job to help ALL New Zealand exporters, regardless, she said.

Except that the correct answer to her bravado question was simple. "Yes". Yes, if your friends and family are involved, you shouldn't visit. Yes, you should stay away. You shouldn't get involved. Other ministers can work for them and you can work for the dozens, maybe hundreds, of other New Zealand companies struggling in China. But if you go out of your way for a company that you and yours benefit from financially, then yes you've crossed a line.

But she chose to attend the dinner and cross the line. And that wrong decision tshould have been enough to convict her months ago. This week's documents are ultimately irrelevant. By endorsing Collins' behaviour from the get-go, Key dropped the ball. And is now paying the price.

Comments (10)

by Alan Johnstone on May 07, 2014
Alan Johnstone

I agree that leaving a wounded Collins in office is good for the left, it gives them an easy target to throw allegations of sleeze at, help WRP sow FUD in voters minds about  Chinese money and makes Key look weak by not sacking her.

Its a perfect outcome for Labour, the stench lingers  Much better than having her go and National making a clean break.

by Andrew Osborn on May 07, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Unfortunately for Labour, smear tactics won't make up for their lack of policy.

If Collin's had been a bit smarter (less worn out/stressed?) she could've batted this crap away weeks ago. There is simple nothing of substance in the whole thing. Conjecture & innuendo yes. Facts, no.

We will see in the fullness of time that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones...

by william blake on May 07, 2014
william blake

Andrew, labour are starting to put together interesting policies, I thought this was common knowledge.

You are saying Collins is a stupid clapped out wee petal? This isn't common knowledge.

Conjecture based on recorded deeds that are losing the National credibility and votes.

and a cliche.

by Tim Watkin on May 07, 2014
Tim Watkin

Andrew, I'm interested to hear from someone who sees nothing of substance in the whole thing. Even Key accepts the perception of a conflict of interest exists.

Still, I can see how you might accept that the chain of events from efforts to arrange meetings to the meetings themselves to certificate to donations are coincidental. But are you entirely comfortable with a minister having a meeting which benefits the private interests of their friends and family while overseas on publlic business?

by Lee Churchman on May 07, 2014
Lee Churchman

The first is that Collins, Key and National in general can bat all this away as circumstantial and coincidental

I don't think they can. This isn't a court of law, but public opinion, which tends to operate on the relative weight of evidence for and against rather than on the principle of "beyond reasonable doubt". I noticed that TV3 news has started referring to the conflict of interest as a matter of established fact, which really surprised me. I guess they've decided to stop hurling mud at David Cunliffe and think they can get mileage out of the corruption of NZ politics by wealthy Chinese interests.

The opposition seem content to carefully add to the charge sheet day by day, and I find it difficult to believe that the contents of the redacted portions of the MFAT documents will not come to light sooner or later. The opposition don't even have to grill her about it. They have successfully transitioned into making the issue about Key's control of his own caucus.

If she resigns or is forced out, then it is a major loss for the National right, and an embarrassment to the Prime Minister. But if she stays, then the opposition have a trump for any argument the government offers: that the PM is protecting a corrupt minister in his government. Peters and Robertson don't really have to do much except keep introducing new snippets of information and baiting the government. I bet they have some juicy stuff saved up for budget week.

by Alan Ivory on May 08, 2014
Alan Ivory

John Armstrong, hardly a member of the "hard left", says there is now little argument even from Collins' National MPs that she had a major conflict of interest: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11250750

Despite being a little coy about saying it outright Fran O'Sullivan's crisp summary of the presently known facts leaves little doubt that what she thinks isn't a million miles from Armstrong's view: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11250672

by Alan Ivory on May 08, 2014
Alan Ivory

John Armstrong, hardly a member of the "hard left", says there is now little argument even from Collins' National MPs that she had a major conflict of interest: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11250750

Despite being a little coy about saying it outright Fran O'Sullivan's crisp summary of the presently known facts leaves little doubt that what she thinks isn't a million miles from Armstrong's view: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11250672

by Ross on May 10, 2014
Ross
The first is that Collins, Key and National in general can bat all this away as circumstantial and coincidental. There's plausible deniability throughout. Collins says it was her strong-willed office staff who got carried away. That the donation wasn't linked to her intercession in China. That well before the trip she had it on the record that the Oravida dinner with the border control agent was private.<\em> That ignores the fact that Collins lied to the PM and to the rest of us. She says she popped into Oravida on the way to the airport. That was a lie. What was she so embarrassed about that she felt the need to withhold the truth? Pansy Wong resigned over a conflict of interest. So did Nick Smith. Collins is simply trying to tough it out, oblivious to or unconcerned with the damage she is causing the government. The Opposition should be delighted she has taken this stance.
by Ross on May 10, 2014
Ross
Lee is correct. Remember that John Key promised (didn't he?) that his MPs and ministers would be held to higher standards than the previous government. So where is the evidence for this? John Banks is charged with a serious criminal offense and yet is not stood down. Meanwhile Judith Collins is permitted to lie to us all while operating outside Cabinet rules. Whilst on a taxpayer funded trip, she promotes a company at which her hubby is employed. John Key's higher standards are an illusion. Now he appears weak and self-serving, prepared to do anything to stay in government.
by stuart munro on May 10, 2014
stuart munro

There is a line of conjecture that the reason JC lost the plot over Maurice Williamson's demotion was not the patent injustice if any, but that he was one of her footsoldiers, and his demotion marked a check to her leadership aspirations.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out - but the obvious watershed for National leadership when the corruption scandals spell their short term electoral demise, is a housecleaning leader who repudiates the cheerful corruption that is causing so much public concern.

The sad thing for JC is that her own circumstances virtually preclude her playing this card. But if a certain Mr Joyce suddenly grows an unwonted set of principles I'll bet we can guess why.

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