POWER PLAY with Brent Edwards

5:18 am on 9 May 2014

Justice Minister Judith Collins is on holiday, apparently taking a break to deal with the stress she has suffered over scrutiny of her involvement with export company Oravida.

The woman who took pride in the moniker Crusher Collins has this week looked crushed.

Ms Collins has taken leave on the advice of Prime Minister John Key, after an extraordinary outburst last Sunday that raised further questions about her judgement.

In an interview with 3News about the resignation of Maurice Williamson as minister and her own difficulties over Oravida Ms Collins questioned the conduct of One News political reporter Katie Bradford. She also implied other Press Gallery journalists were in her sights.

Later that day she apologised to Ms Bradford on Twitter but the damage had been done.

Ms Collins is under more pressure after the release of emails by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade about the minister's visit to China last October.

The emails, despite the protestations of both Ms Collins and Mr Key, do little to answer questions raised by Opposition parties about the minister's conduct on the China visit.

In short they accuse her of a conflict of interest over the visit because her husband David Wong-Tung is a director of Oravida and owner, Stone Shi, and managing director Julia Xu are close personal friends.

What the emails confirm is that Ms Collins' office wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to get Mr Shi and Ms Xu invited to a lunch meeting at the embassy on the day she arrived in Beijing. They also had a visit to Oravida's Shanghai headquarters added to the itinerary, despite the fact Ms Collins was there in her role as Justice Minister.

But what has excited most interest is a dinner Ms Collins had with Mr Shi, Ms Xu and an unnamed senior Chinese border control official in Beijing.

Ms Collins has consistently said it was a private dinner and the official was simply a close friend of Mr Shi. Nothing was discussed about border control matters related to Oravida's difficulties at the time of getting its milk into China.

Mr Key has repeatedly said the emails proved that because they always referred to the dinner as a private one.

But the Prime Minister is wrong.

On at least four occasions emails between Ms Collins' office, MFAT and the embassy in Beijing simply refer to it as a dinner.

On 15 October at 7.44am the New Zealand ambassador gets an email in regard to what then is called a meeting on Sunday evening.

"She (the minister) would like you and Connie to attend," it says.

About 20 minutes later the minister's office emails the Beijing embassy requesting a briefing for the dinner.

The next day at 8.13am the office emails again noting that the dinner is not included in the programme.

The emails make it clear by this time the ambassador, Carl Worker, is worried about the dinner, although whatever he writes in his emails have been deleted from the Official Information Act release.

At 10.09am on 16 October he gets an email from the director of the ministry's North Asia Division, Grahame Morton, saying: "Squared away. The dinner will be a private one. Your attendance is not expected or required."

The next day Ms Collins office emails the embassy: "Nothing from MFAT is required. The Minister is having a private dinner on the Sunday evening."

These are the first emails that refer to the dinner as a private one, which raises questions about why Mr Key continues to spin the emails a different way.

Now not only is Ms Collins' reputation at stake in this affair. So, too, is the Prime Minister's. That is why Opposition parties are focussing as strongly on his role as they are on that of Ms Collins.

They believe Ms Collins had a conflict of interest in promoting Oravida so strongly. No other New Zealand exporter appears to have had the same support from Ms Collins on her visit.

When she returns to Parliament she will face further questions about her role, particularly if more emails are made public.

Mr Key has so far been resolute in his defence of Ms Collins but at some point he might have to assess whether her problems are also harming the Government's prospects, with the election just four months away.

He might fear though that the consequences of moving against Ms Collins - who is reluctant to ever admit she is wrong - would be worse than leaving her as a target for Opposition parties.

But Opposition parties also face a quandary.

They have the Government under real pressure over Ms Collins' conduct but risk undermining that by their broader attack on the National Party's fundraising activities.

Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First have accused National of giving its wealthy donors preferential access to government ministers.

John Key has rejected that accusation and used it to, in turn, accuse those parties of engaging in similar activities.

The problem in politics is that when it comes to fundraising and donations no party is squeaky clean.

Follow Brent Edwards on Twitter @rnzgallerybrent