Politicians could learn a lot from growing courgettes. Turn your back on a cocktail-sausage-sized courgette growing on the vine for five minutes – next thing you’ve got the Hindenburg on your hands.
Judith Collins and David Cunliffe merit a joint entry in the textbook of crisis-management. They both demonstrated that to turn a passing media squall into a raging tempest, all you need to do is ignore it.
Had the Justice Minister and the Labour leader fronted up frankly and comprehensively to the first barrage of questions they faced on their potentially sticky issues, they’d have got a couple of days’ bad press, instead of the ten-days-to-a-fortnight’s rampage they’ve provided for the press gallery.
Collins comes off the worst, as she actually witnessed Cunliffe make this mistake and pay the price, right before she did the same thing herself. And she’s still not out of the woods.
In the beginning, even Labour didn’t think the Oravida story would amount to much beyond a case of too-cosy schmoozing with her husband’s business partners.
And in the grand scheme of things, it still doesn’t. When political feeding frenzies occur, it’s always useful to ask the baseline question: what actual mischief occurred here? The answer is, none that we know of. Nothing illicit or unethical took place. Oravida does not appear to have been unfairly advantaged over any other company. No one was hurt, no swifties were pulled.
But the whole point of the transparency rules and conventions that Collins so insouciantly flouted was that there could have been mischief. As a result of ignoring those rules, Collins now faces utterly unmanageable political risks downstream, in terms of Oravida’s future fortunes in China and how they are perceived to have come about. She can be as innocent as a spring lamb in a garland of daffodils, but this is now all about perception, and politicians never get the benefit of the doubt.
The very fact that Oravida is run by two of Collins’ closest friends and her husband should have mandated that she not associate with the company in her ministerial capacity – for her own reputational protection. This might seem overly cautious, as the four socialise personally while at home. But when you’ve got your ministerial hat on, you can’t be anyone’s friend as such.
As for failing to disclose the lunch and dinner meetings, including her socialising with a senior Chinese border official, that was so foolish as to be almost surreal, considering Collins’ reputation as a laser-focused political barracuda.
The secrecy enabled a much murkier pall to be woven around her Oravida connections than would have been the case if she’d disclosed the interactions in the first place – or better still not had them.
A stock-take of this affair show Collins traversed a minefield, some of whose mines proved inert, but others could turn out to be live:
Anything a politician does with a friend or relative’s business interests is going to invite the sniff test: does the MP’s association advantage the business?In this case, very possibly. Politicians are seen as very high-status individuals in China, be they from Tuvalu or the United States. A company that can get one into its publicity blurbs considers it has scored a coup.
How Collins’ claimed endorsement of Oravida translates into additional sales by the company, if at all, we will probably never know. Safe bet: hardly at all. But Collins was used as a trophy by Oravida, and that’s something New Zealand political culture does not readily condone. Admittedly it’s a fine line between John Key appearing in publicity shots for Peter Jackson and co. in Hollywood. And we expect our politicians to promote and assist New Zealand businesses abroad. But this duty doesn’t come with infinitely elastic boundaries.
The media fuss about what the Chinese translation of her claimed endorsement of Oravida milk really said and whether the prime minister bothered to find out is largely irrelevant, as it is clear Collins did not authorise or approve of the “endorsement” puffery, and has put a stop to it.However, all New Zealand MPs know that when they go to China, this sort of thing is apt to happen. Even taking steps to guard against it is fraught, for the Chinese often simply don’t seem to get our aversion to nepotism and our fastidiousness about conflicts of interest. They would see the Oravida situation as a marvellous confluence of interest.
The presence of the border official at dinner was definitely a potential cause of material mischief. Granted, Collins did not know he was coming to the party, and, accepting her plea of language barrier, it is ridiculous to think the pair spent the evening stitching up preferential access for Oravida’s goods.However, there’s a dangerous circularity here. It’s a reasonable assumption that the official was asked because Collins was attending. From Oravida’s standpoint, it was “Influential friend A meet influential friend B.” This automatically gives rise to a question of preferential access for the company over other companies because of Collins. Collins should have backed out of that dinner right away. Awkward, yes. But her close friends would surely have understood.
Collins neglected to factor in the glorious narrative National’s foes could spin from her Oravida connection. For not only had she, but several other senior National figures also had dealings with the company. Innocent dealings. Legitimate dealings. Dealings, even, in the national interest. There was not a hint of sleaze in any of it. But an Opposition MP can make it sound like something approaching the Cosa Nostra.
The very generous donation to the National Party from Oravida, again perfectly legal, not secret and in no way scandalous or even faintly questionable, nevertheless fed into Labour’s narrative. Collins should have been able to see that, and steer clear.
Here’s Collins’ longer-term risk: if, downstream, it becomes apparent that Oravida does have preferential access or treatment different to other comparable companies, this affair will re-ignite like the Aussie bush in a drought.
A wounded lioness is a very dangerous animal. The Opposition is fond of comparing John Key to Sir Robert Muldoon, but if anyone deserves the mantle of that compulsive bare-knuckle fighter, it’s “Crusher.” She relishes a scrap and seldom fails to take the desired scalps when she embarks on one. She has been widely touted as the next National leader, and this affair puts a dent in her carefully-honed persona as a Warrior Queen.
Overnight her career has become precarious. John Key has made it clear if there is one more surprise or element of untidiness to emerge from this affair, she will lose her ministerial job. And, as explained above, she may have no control over future developments that call her actions into further question. Yet as she has said of herself, she is not a person to take adversity passively. In vain have the commentariat, and in all probability the prime minister, informed her that she has no one but herself to blame for her predicament. Her demeanour, while attempting humility during her public apologies for her lapses, has been unconvincing. She still gives every sign of regarding the affair as a media and Opposition beat-up, and an unfair attempt to sandbag her political progress.
What she will do next, covertly or directly, must be a matter of great concern to the Government, especially six months from an election. Nationals’ is that rare thing, a happy caucus. A demoted Collins could wreck that equilibrium.
All the same, the lack of fire in the belly of those Government figures defending Collins has been telling. Collins may be feared and admired, and for good reason. But she may not be entirely liked or trusted by colleagues. Only Anne Tolley, who inherited her Corrections portfolio, put true gusto into her snap debate defence of Collins on Wednesday.
Gerry Brownlee, standing in for Key at Thursday’s question time, was remarkably offhand when asked by how much Oravida had benefitted from the special attentions of Collins. The obvious answer would have been that it would be ridiculous to think the claimed endorsement of a politician from a small foreign country would add a cent to Oravida’s sales in China; and that China’s border treatment of the company had not softened to the best of anyone’s knowledge as a result of Collins meeting the official.
Instead, Brownlee simply said he did not have the information to answer the question.
During the snap debate, even the Opposition’s most trenchant allegations – of lying and of seeking personal gain – went uninterjected. Ordinarily such slurs would trigger a volley of points of order.
It appears Collins has something else in common with Cunliffe: difficulty inspiring loyalty from colleagues.
She may also now have a galloping case of lactose intolerance.