By Guyon Espiner for RNZ
Foreign Minister Winston Peters directed Antarctica New Zealand to give two highly prized spots on a trip to the icy continent to two women closely linked to one of South East Asia's richest families.
Bee Lin Chew and her daughter Su Arn Kwek, who are dual Malaysian-New Zealand citizens, travelled to Scott Base, at taxpayer expense, in February after Antarctica New Zealand scrambled to make room for them at the insistence of Peters' office.
Emails released under the Official Information Act show Antarctica New Zealand pushing back at the request to include Chew and Kwek, as only one spot was available and that was supposed to be for a government minister.
Taxpayer-funded Antarctica New Zealand initially warned that science programmes or essential staff may have to be cut to make room for the women. But it ultimately managed to fulfill the request without disruption to the programme and in line with the "firmly held" views from Peters' office.
In an interview on the doorstep of one of the two homes she owns on Auckland's exclusive Paritai Drive, Bee Lin Chew said she was a good friend of Peters and his partner Jan Trotman.
Chew said she had met Peters, the leader of NZ First, through his old friend Philip Burdon, who served "for a very long time" on the board of one of her family's companies.
National MP Gerry Brownlee, who has been pursuing the issue through Parliamentary written questions, questioned why Peters nominated a friend for the prized trip without any obvious benefit to New Zealand.
In 2018, NZ First MP Shane Jones was critical of then-Antarctica New Zealand board member Rob Fyfe after his wife Sara Tetro travelled to the continent as a consultant.
"Explain to me why one of the directors of the board of Antarctica has been allowed to take his wife down when ordinary Kiwis never get the chance to go to Antarctica," Jones said to RNZ.
Emails released under the Official Information Act show Peters, who is the minister responsible for Antarctica New Zealand, planned to invite Finance Minister Grant Robertson to the ice in light of the redevelopment of Scott Base, which the government committed $18.5 million to in 2019.
Robertson could not go, so Peters nominated Chew and Kwek. Their visit to the continent was described by Antarctica New Zealand as occurring "on direction from the Minister of Foreign Affairs".
Jana Newman, manager of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Antarctic unit, emailed her colleagues on January 14 about the visit after speaking to Antarctica New Zealand CEO Sarah Williamson.
Newman said Antarctica New Zealand told her it "only ever held one seat for this season" for a ministerial visit and she was not sure where the idea of two seats had come from.
"If there were direction that there needed to be two seats made available, existing, planned, prioritised and funded events, likely Antarctic science, would need to be cut from the programme."
After speaking to Peters' office, Newman wrote to Williamson saying the foreign minister and his chief of staff were working on the understanding two visitors could go.
"We are not sure where the understanding came from but it is there and firmly held," Newman wrote. "It would be helpful for them to understand the material effect on the programme, if two people were to travel, before they go back to the Minister - are you able to provide that information - i.e. what would need to be cut and what the impact would be?"
Williamson responded saying she had gone back through six months of records and there had only ever been one seat and bed for this type of visit and that space was needed for engineering and maintenance staff at Scott Base before the temperatures dropped.
"As all the flights are full any reallocation of seats on February 5 will require a reallocation across other flights on other days and on some flights there are very few seats allocated to the New Zealand operation".
Emails between foreign affairs and Antarctica New Zealand officials show they eventually found a solution which would not cause disruption to the programme and the pair would visit the ice between February 7 and 10.
Williamson emailed the board of Antarctica New Zealand on January 28 saying that as a result of Peters' direction she would endeavour to make travel for Chew and Kwek work.
"As Antarctica New Zealand has been directed to host the invited visitors to Antarctica by the minister's office we will ensure that the team provide the best experience they can."
Chew, who is listed on the electoral roll as a "housewife" but is also a director and shareholder in a food and a real estate company in New Zealand, told RNZ she was a "good friend" of Peters.
She said that while she did not make political donations she did "wine and dine" with people with political power, including National Party President Peter Goodfellow and also with Peters and his partner Jan Trotman.
She said she had not donated to New Zealand First or to the New Zealand First Foundation.
"I make an effort not to contribute. So no matter how much they would like to dig among the funds they will not see any donations from me to either party," she said. "Because I don't really do business here I don't actually need any of them to help me in any way."
She said Peters knew about her passion for travel and the outdoors.
"I have travelled to South America. I was about to go to Nepal and Mt Everest before the lockdown. So I am very much into the world of nature. So he would so know what I enjoy - both him and the wife."
When the opportunity came up, "I said, 'sure, without doubt I will jump on that'."
Chew said she got to know Peters through his friend Philip Burdon, who was a National Party MP alongside him between 1981 and 1996.
"Philip served on our board for a very long time," she said.
Burdon was a director of GGL Assets, a subsidiary of Guoco Group, ultimately owned by Hong Leong Company of Malaysia, one of the largest conglomerates in South East Asia.
In December 2018 Guoco Group Limited was given Overseas Investment Office approval to buy Pacific Health Group TopCo1 Limited, the second-largest mānuka honey company in New Zealand, for $269m.
Burdon was named as one of the people with "control of the relevant overseas person".
Burdon said he knew the family through his business dealings but had nothing to do with Chew and Kwek travelling to Antarctica and didn't know about the trip until contacted by RNZ.
While on the ice, and hearing from Antarctica New Zealand that private money would also be needed to develop Scott Base, Chew said she wondered whether Peters was motivated to send her on the trip in the hope she would contribute funding to the project. But she says she was never asked for money.
Deputy National Party leader Gerry Brownlee said he did not accept the idea of the pair being possible contributors to the Scott Base redevelopment as being a valid reason for them to travel to Antarctica.
He said if there was a campaign to get private money for Scott Base then the government should be upfront about that.
"You'd expect it to be a very widespread programme that a lot of New Zealanders could consider putting money into or people from overseas but it must be transparent."
Information RNZ received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade about why the two were invited is partially redacted, but says "they are fascinated by Antarctica and the role NZ plays there" and "have no connection to any government's interests".
Peters refused a request for an interview. In response to Parliamentary Questions from Brownlee, he said he had met Chew and Kwek "many times, strictly in a personal capacity", after being introduced to them by Burdon and former National MP Sir Don McKinnon.
Asked by Brownlee why he nominated the women for the trip, Peters said they "had a keen interest" in Antarctica and were "interested in the government's broader objectives" there.
A summary of the trip, released by Antarctica New Zealand to RNZ, shows the pair visited Cape Evans and Cape Royds to see Shackleton and Scott's historic huts and toured McMurdo station and Scott Base.
Antarctica New Zealand is seeking to distance itself from the visit and is refusing interviews.
Chief executive Sarah Williamson emailed her board on January 28, saying: "All future requests for information from outside Antarctica New Zealand in regards to the trip will be redirected to MFAT as Antarctica New Zealand is not in a position to answer these."
Board minutes from February show that Antarctica New Zealand is now implementing a new policy for international visitors.
The minutes say that the policy should now "include the benefit of the visit to New Zealand/Antarctica New Zealand".
Antarctica New Zealand told RNZ that the new policy was planned regardless of Chew and Kwek's visit.