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.