John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Hard to see conflict of interest

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If Judith Collins was encouraging trade surely that benefits us all.

Judith Collins with her husband David Wong Tung, who is director of Oravida. Photo / APN
Judith Collins with her husband David Wong Tung, who is director of Oravida. Photo / APN

Like most people, I suspect, I watch the sport of politics much as I watch the Super 15. If it's on television when I'm on the couch, I'm interested but not riveted. It's not the All Blacks.

The grilling of Judith Collins has been Super 15.

It has been running almost as long. It was early March when Labour's Grant Robertson started to ask questions in Parliament about her dinner in Shanghai. When Collins finally cracked last weekend, put the boot into a reporter and was sent from the field, Labour had a bonus point victory. High fives all round.

Her performance last weekend was far more troubling to my mind than the Oravida business. We saw her on television make a clearly calculated, gratuitous slur on someone that turned out to be untrue. When it was publicised and denied, she apologised.

Charitably, John Key is calling it stress. Maybe that is all it was. It is hard to remember a previous politician facing such sustained interrogation, day after day in Parliament for two months.

But then, these firestorms rarely linger in the memory.

Rugby commentators do their utmost to make every Super 15 match matter and so do commentators on politics. The Oravida dinner, they said, raised a serious conflict of interest. I am fairly easily outraged by any sign that a public figure has put personal gain ahead of the national interest, but this one never lit my fire.

Collins was accused of using her ministerial position to advance the interests in China of a New Zealand exporting company of which her husband was a director. I wish she had pleaded guilty at the outset and asked some questions of her, such as:

Where is the "conflict" when a personal interest is completely in line with the national interest?

Her visit to China in October was two months after the botulism false alarm. New Zealand dairy products were struggling to maintain access to the Chinese market. Fonterra and the Government were doing their utmost to convince Chinese authorities and consumers that it really was a false alarm.

If any minister visiting China knew of an exporter she could help simply by showing up for a dinner with a border official, I think she should. The fact that she had a family connection to the company sounds less like a conflict of interest than a conjunction of interests to me.

Showing up was all she needed to do, all that she was in a position to do. As the former head of a yoghurt exporter, Paul O'Brien, told the Herald in March, "You don't go to these meetings to beat heads to get a tariff reduction or get some goods over the line - it's all just relationship building." Chinese officials could even be offended if specific business issues were raised, he said.

When Collins says Oravida's issues were not discussed with the border official and they chatted about tourism, she'll be right. Would that have benefited Oravida? "Absolutely," O'Brien said. "If you can get an MP along you are held in high esteem."

This week the 50-odd small New Zealand exporters of branded milk products to China learned their infant formula is being blocked by a Chinese regulation that came into force on May 1. They were told they would be able to sell their present stocks in the meantime. Now the regulating body has changed its mind.

Let's get 50-odd MPs up there.

The case against Judith Collins seems to be that a minister should not help a company in which she has a personal interest even when doing so is also in the national interest. Is that really the rule?

It seems so. The Cabinet Manual says, "A conflict may arise if people close to a minister, such as a minister's family, whanau or close associates may derive, or be perceived as deriving, some personal financial or other benefit from a decision or action by the minister ..."

It makes no distinction between an action that accords with the national interest and one that is in conflict with it. It may need updating. Exporters to China are dealing with a business and bureaucratic culture that has not fully emerged from communism and is accustomed to the ruling party playing a leading role in industry at all levels. The line between public and private enterprise is much less clear than it is here.

Collins' disgraceful performance last weekend overshadowed an important speech Key was making to the National Party's Auckland conference. The Government's open embrace of foreign connections would be a point of difference with the restrictive policies likely to be heard from Labour, Greens and New Zealand First at the coming election.

That's the big game. That's the All Blacks. When Collins returns he should send her to China.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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