Fran O'Sullivan: Key pulls chain on Crusher Collins

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Threat to dish dirt on journalists a step too far for PM, who does not want an election-year war with the media.

Judith Collins is to take a break from Parliament for a few days from tomorrow. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins is to take a break from Parliament for a few days from tomorrow. Photo / Mark Mitchell

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.

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.

Collins used standard political-speak weasel words to announce the chairman's departure: "Mr Judge agreed with me that it would be appropriate given his new role and the fact that to bring in the new culture into ACC, improving on the work, that I would like to see, it would be appropriate for a new chair."

No one in the corporate sector bought that. Even Key went out of his way to defuse the issue by saying the timing of Judge's departure was "a little bit unfortunate" but he had done a "tremendous job".

Key's coded phraseology when he announced Collins' decision to take a break from Thursday was not too far distant from that used in announcing Judge's departure.

But what is instructive is that no one stopped Collins from trying to harm Judge's reputation by claiming he had hampered an investigation into email leaks which identified Pullar at the centre of a huge ACC privacy breach.

Unlike last weekend where her target, journalist Katie Bradford, was not in a position to counter-attack, Judge did just that, saying Collins' claims were untrue, "pathetic" and simply an effort to blacken his name. His clash with "The Crusher" did him no harm in the business community. He still chairs the country's largest bank, ANZ. But his effective dismissal prompted a number of senior business players to think twice about taking on the chairmanship of government-related commercial bodies.

The point of this exercise is to say that the writing was on the wall two years ago. But neither Key nor the Cabinet at large appeared to have tried to bring Collins into line.

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.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade documents and emails released this week add more weight to the Opposition's allegations against Collins. But they are heavily redacted. They don't nail her in quite the way that Labour's Grant Robertson and NZ First's Winston Peters allege. The Government - on advice from the ministry - has also refused to release the name of the Chinese official as it doesn't want to prejudice international relations.

That is undoubtedly wise given that New Zealand officials are still negotiating with China to try to get more products from the affected infant formula exporters back into China.

But the Government does owe an explanation to those exporters over why they haven't received such cosy treatment.

Why is it only now - fully months after two junior ministers reckon the Government first read the signals from China that it would be difficult for smaller infant formula exporters to continue to trade into that country - that officials are finally getting around to a more strategic approach.

The exporters' infant formula products will not be landed in China when the ships arrive. It looks like Oravida's fresh milk will continue to be flown in.

Collins doesn't get this. But her Cabinet colleagues should.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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