Justice Minister Judith Collins' dinner meeting with a senior Chinese border control official would have been highly beneficial for milk exporter Oravida - even if business matters were not discussed, says the former chief executive of a large New Zealand dairy export firm.
Collins is under fire after being forced to admit this week that she attended the dinner in Beijing at which her friend Stone Shi, Oravida's founder, and Julia Xu, the milk company's managing director, were also in attendance.
The Minister was on a taxpayer-funded visit to China and her husband, David Wong Tung, sits on Oravida's board.
Paul O'Brien, the former boss of Auckland-based EasiYo, which exports around $12 million worth of yoghurt in powder form to China annually, said getting all dairy products into the Chinese market had become much more difficult after Fonterra's botulism false alarm last year and introducing a border control official to a Government Minister would "absolutely" make the process easier and help "smooth the way" for Oravida.
"It enhances your own credibility, because if you can get an MP along you are held in high esteem," O'Brien said. "I would absolutely milk it wherever I could."
He said doing business in China was extremely "relationship based".
"If your container is stuck, you just go up the chain of command in the Government and someone will get it released," said O'Brien, who left EasiYo in December.
Collins has said she only discussed tourism matters at the dinner and Oravida would not have gained any benefit from the meeting.
But O'Brien said just the Minister's presence at the dinner would have benefited the milk firm.
"You don't actually go to these meetings to beat [the officials'] 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 at such an engagement, O'Brien said.
In Parliament yesterday New Zealand First leader Winston Peters challenged Collins' assurances that Oravida's business had not been discussed at the dinner.
"Following the botulism scare of last year, is it not a fact that her visit to Oravida was predominantly access and Customs clearance for Oravida products in the Chinese market, and that is the real reason why a People's Republic of China border official was present at that dinner?"
Collins once again denied that.
Asked whether she would resign if it emerged that she discussed Oravida's imports to China with the border official, the Minister said: "Yes, of course, but I didn't."
Following Fonterra's botulism scare Julie Xu said Oravida, which exports fresh milk and other products to China, was facing additional testing requirements at the Chinese border, which was adding costs and causing delays.
During the interview on TVNZ's Q+A programme Xu also said: "I think the Government, perhaps, could do a little more to engage in more bilateral talks to remove some of the tests or measures the Chinese Government have put on because of this false mistake."