Justice Minister Judith Collins said she told milk product company Oravida that it could not use her photograph or name to endorse its products prior to visiting it in China last year and although its milk was "nice" that was not an endorsement of the company.
Labour's Grant Robertson continued to claim Collins breached conflict of interest rules for ministers for the visit to Oravida, despite Prime Minister John Key saying the Cabinet Office had advised there was no breach.
Ms Collins' husband is a director of the New Zealand milk product exporting company and after her visit, the company put a photo of her on its website and said she had tasted and endorsed its products.The Cabinet Manual prohibits Ministers endorsing products. It also says a perception of a conflict of interest may arise where a family member or friend of a minister could get some benefit from the ministers' actions or decisions.
Ms Collins said she had told Oravida in advance that it could not use her name or photograph to endorse or promote its products and had not known about the photo on the website. She had since asked Oravida to ensure it was not claiming she endorsed it, in either English or mandarin. She had tasted the milk and said "it was nice" but that did not amount to an endorsement of the company. "Shock, horror, I drink milk. I promote New Zealand milk anywhere I go. It's the finest milk in the world."
She said Mr Robertson's claims were "desperate" and solely because he was trying to help Labour leader David Cunliffe escape scrutiny for his use of trusts.
However, Mr Robertson claimed there was still a clear conflict of interest. "Going to a company where her husband is a director, having a photo taken and being said to have endorsed the products fits within that conflict." Mr Robertson denied he had timed the allegations to detract attention from Mr Cunliffe's campaign funding. He also denied working with NZ First on the issue. Ms Collins recently responded to a request from NZ First about her China trips under the Official Information Act but Mr Robertson said he had not seen that. Labour had asked some questions to get information in August last year and worked on it further last month.
Mr Key said the Cabinet Office did not believe Ms Collins' had endorsed the products. "The fact the company might write down something, that happens all the time. I go to lots of things where I hold up things or say oh I use your toilet paper or whatever it might be, that's not deemed to be an endorsement."
Under Parliamentary privilege, he said the situation had echoes of former National MP Pansy Wong who resigned over allegations her husband had used Parliamentary travel perks to fly to China and did business while there - which was against the rules for the use of the perks. Ms Collins said her husband had accompanied her while on an official trip to China in 2012 but had paid for himself and was on holiday. He had not held any business meetings while there.
Mr Roberston said Ms Collins had opened the Auckland office of Oravida in 2013 and Oravida donated more than $55,000 to National in 2011. He said National Party president Peter Goodfellow had met with its representatives and was also part owner of Sanfords which supplied fish products to Oravida. "So knowing all of that, Judith Collins goes to this office and promotes the products of that company. That is a conflict of interest. Judith Collins is not above the rules."
* Judith Collins visited Oravida in China last year. Her husband is a director. A photo of Collins was put on its website with a caption saying she endorsed its products. It is against Cabinet rules to endorse products, or do anything from which a family member may benefit.
* The defence: Prime Minister John Key said the Cabinet Office "unequivocally .. said no there's no breach."