18 Mar 2014

Justice Minister pressed on trip

10:06 pm on 18 March 2014

The Justice Minister has been pressed in Parliament about her assurance there were no business-related conversations during a dinner she had in China while on a taxpayer-funded trip in October last year.

Last week, Judith Collins was forced to apologise for not revealing the dinner in Beijing earlier, while fending off conflict of interest allegations after being accused of visiting the Shanghai office of export company Oravida and praising its milk products.

Judith Collins in the House on Tuesday.

Judith Collins in the House on Tuesday. Photo: RNZ

Oravida is a New Zealand milk exporting company run by two of Ms Collins' very close friends and her husband is a director.

Present at the dinner in Beijing were two executives from Oravida, one of her senior advisers Margaret Malcolm and a Chinese border control official.

Ms Collins has insisted there was no talk about business, or any problems Oravida might have had importing milk products after a botulism scare at Fonterra in New Zealand last year.

In Parliament on Tuesday, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters asked her how she can be so sure, if there were language barriers between her and the official.

"Can she confirm therefore that she and Margaret Malcolm are fluent in Mandarin and therefore able to understand everything that was said during the dinner?"

Ms Collins replied: "No, I can however, assure the member that I am fluent in English and I can understand when someone's talking to me in English - normally."

She said neither she nor Ms Malcolm speak Mandarin, and the only thing she talked about New Zealand being a great place to visit.

Judith Collins was asked by reporters again on Tuesday who footed the bill for the dinner and said: "Well, actually, I've already said I didn't pay for it. Margaret Malcolm didn't pay for it. The taxpayer didn't. I don't know who did and I haven't asked."

In reply to a question that that meant Oravida or a Chinese official paid for the dinner, and how did that not add to the perceptions that it was a conflict of interest, Ms Collins said: "Well, actually it doesn't."

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe called on the minister to come clean. "Who paid for the dinner? Who was the Chinese official? Why did the ambassador not attend? What was discussed? Asked why it was important who paid, he replied: "Because, were there favours traded?"

Acting Prime Minister Bill English said it is up to Ms Collins to answer those questions. "She was at the dinner; she knows the relationships and what would be regarded, you know, as hospitable and polite."

Mr English said it is very common for a minister to attend a dinner, and to have someone else pay. He said in fact, at a dinner where a minister is promoting New Zealand's interests, it would be very unusual for them to pick up the tab.