Fran O'Sullivan: PM's need to save face rescues Collins

Other ministers have vanished for similar lapses of judgment

Judith Collins owes her political scalp to the imminent visit of the Prime Minister to Beijing.

It is fatuous to believe that Collins would have otherwise survived the slowly unfolding disaster over the way she played her connections with Oravida's co-founders if John Key had not been preparing to depart for China on Monday to meet Chinese leaders.

Here's the thing. If Key had sacked Collins for her clear failure to manage her conflict of interest it would have caused a diplomatic furore in China.

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It was one thing for this supremely self-confident Cabinet minister to unquestioningly accept an invitation from the Auckland-headquartered company to visit its Shanghai office and drink a glass of the fresh milk it imports from New Zealand. That was already out of line given her husband David Wong-Tung happens to be an Oravida director.

The Prime Minister resorted to semantics when he let Collins off the hook by deeming her effusive praise of the milk - now taken down from Oravida's Chinese website - as merely a "promotion" rather than an "endorsement".

Key brushed that issue aside.

But the Cabinet minister's decision to accept co-founder Stone Shi's invitation to join him, co-founder and managing director Julia Xu and a high-ranking Chinese border official for a so-called private dinner during the same trip broke the line. Particularly when Collins did not even disclose the dinner - nor the name of this high-ranking Chinese official - in her subsequent report to the Cabinet.

The dinner may have been entirely innocent as Collins maintains. But not declaring the dinner creates a suspicion that business drivers - rather than friendship - were at play, particularly as there have been border issues that have marred bilateral trade.

The fact that the name of this Chinese official has been suppressed is a sure indicator that international diplomatic niceties rather than domestic politics are involved.

It is obvious that Key would not want his meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to be overshadowed by negative headlines such as "Minister sacked over undisclosed dinner with Chinese border official".

The Prime Minister places a high value on probity.

Other ministers, Richard Worth and Pansy Wong for example, were forced to resign over similar failures to tell all the truth (in Worth's case) and manage a conflict of interest in relation to her husband's business (with Wong).

Collins' slow political strip-tease over her connections with Oravida has indelibly pricked the credibility of this tough female Cabinet minister.

In many respects, she is a walking demonstration of the old motto that "your strength is also your weakness".

But even before this event the eggshells were cracking.

Collins, Wong-Tung, Shi and Xu are personal friends.

This would lead a cautious minister to create a suitable distance with the company.

But Collins cut the ribbon at Oravida's office opening late last year.

On Thursday, she confirmed she had another dinner with Xu during the invitation-only Apec Women Leadership Forum last November. Both Collins and Xu were forum speakers. So too were other prominent New Zealand women including Dame Jenny Shipley - the former National Prime Minister who has long been well connected in China - Auckland City Hospital's Dr Emma Parry and entrepreneur Dame Wendy Pye.

Collins could have mentioned (but didn't) that Oravida was also a key sponsor of the leadership forum. The company was one of two Platinum sponsors.

She should now reflect how her lapses have cost Oravida and her friends.

Oravida is a New Zealand based-company that promotes premium products for the Chinese market through direct online sales.

It has been a trailblazer. There are positive success aspects that New Zealand businesses could emulate.

Shi is a New Zealand citizen. He has been a strong supporter of the New Zealand brand in China.

Xu had a high-flying career for Deutsche Bank in China, and in New York and Tokyo for Bankers Trust and Lehman Brothers respectively before moving to become an entrepreneur.

There are lessons on all sides from this debacle. But Collins can thank sheer luck that she has not been forced to walk the plank that Key forced former colleagues to tread.

- NZ Herald

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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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