Senior National MP Judith Collins claims in her memoir to have been ‘thrown under a bus’ by former Prime Minister, John Key, over the Oravida influence allegations that prompted the PM to stand her down from Cabinet in the previous government.

I can shed light on parts of the Oravida story, going right back to New Zealand media reports of the company activities in April 2013 – months before a dinner in China that nearly broke Collins’ career.

In April 2014, while writing for Newsroom, then owned by NZX Ltd, I reported that New Zealand dairy company Oravida was airfreighting fresh milk from NZ China. I also reported that Oravida, governed by directors including Collins’ husband, David Wong-Tung, used a photo of Prime Minister Key playing golf with its chairman, Deyi ‘Stone’ Shi, to promote its new dairy brand.

While on tour in China with the PM, officials and a business delegation, I asked Key whether this would be seen as a breach of the Cabinet Manual, relating to Cabinet ministers making commercial endorsements.

Oravida was close to the highest-ranking members of the National Party. Months after my trip, when a scandal broke about Collins’ dealings with Oravida, Key confirmed to other media that one of his golfing photos with Shi was taken at a fundraiser for the party.

It was well known by that stage that Oravida was catching and selling scampi, with help from Sanfords, a company part-owned by National Party president, Peter Goodfellow. It was also on public record that Oravida chairman Shi was a regular, substantial donor to the National Party.

By then, I was interested in these ties in all sorts of ways.

While in China, a source told me that government ministers and a business delegation would visit a supermarket where they would see a demonstration of Oravida dairy product.At the time, I had no knowledge of Oravida, let alone the political ties. I was there to write about agribusiness, so I went looking for a story about fresh milk being lifted straight from NZ farms to heaving, growing markets in big cities in China.

I asked Key about the venture at a stand-up interview and was surprised to hear Key, without reference to notes, quote the retail price of the product to almost the last dollar – around $23 for a two-litre bottle. It’s one thing to be on top of your facts; it’s another to be know the ins and outs of a then-obscure start-up.

My interest was piqued when I came across an image of Key on Oravida’s website – a shot of Stone Shi. Clearly, Shi was using the cosy image to create a sense, in China, that Oravida’s venture had some sort of official endorsement from New Zealand authorities.

I pressed Key’s press secretary, Kelly Bloxham (nee McAra) for answers and was not to the least bit helpful in my request to join the NZ business delegation on a trip to a supermarket stocking Oravida product. I understood that Oravida would be part of a product demonstration.

After several requests for media access, over about 24-36 hours as I recall, Bloxham told me that this particular part of the trip had been cancelled. She offered no explanation apart from that it was no longer possible.

It all felt odd. After all, it was clear to me from my source that the visit was a scheduled and much-anticipated part of the business delegation’s tour. The late Fonterra chairman, John Wilson, was up to speed with the details, giving me comment on the likely feasibility of other NZ companies selling milk fresh milk to China. Not easy to do it at the right price, he reckoned.

At gut level, I was sure that, given that my original Oravida stories had been by then been reported back in NZ – and expanded upon by other media – officials decided to scrap the ‘Oravida part’ of the itinerary, lest be accused of promoting the interests of a particular company for political gain.

As it transpired, the public record suggests that the event may have been scrapped, at least in part, because it did not fit trade official’s idea of a marketing event that promoted NZ Inc. More on that later.

After coming home, and resuming regular reporting for Newsroom and other titles within NZX’s rural publishing group, I tried for two months to interview Oravida’s managing director and co-founder, Julia Xu, for an Oravida story. Naturally, I also wanted Xu to comment on allegations that it was exerting improper influence on government to promote its interests, via Shi’s donations and its National Party connections.

Neither Xu nor other Oravida management returned calls, but one day, David Wong-Tung called.

We had never spoken and he was aggressive with me from the outset, asking why I was pursuing what he suggested was a ‘racist’ agenda against Oravida management and directors including himself – and why was I taking such a negative attitude to the affairs of a New Zealand-domiciled company doing legitimate business in the country’s interest.

Wong-Tung asked whether someone has put me up to writing a story. This struck me as a loaded political question – and a risky one given his wife Judith Collins’ position as a Cabinet member- and he threatened legal action against the publisher if a prospective story did not accurately or fairly represent the company and its activities.

I remember thinking it was an extraordinary phone call, in tone and content. I also found it surprising that it was he who called me, as a director of the company, rather than Julia Xu, who I had tried so hard, without success, to interview. I could only surmise that Xu had asked Wong-Tung to call me – and that it was with the express intent of putting me off any further Oravida story.

My wonder at Wong-Tung’s phone call deepened in 2014, when Collins was accused by political opponents of using her Ministerial position to gain advantage for Oravida. She was stood down as a Minister for a time over the charges, though was subsequently cleared of impropriety.

Yet questions remain for me about why Wong-Tung called me in that way in the autumn of 2013 – and why he was evidently so determined to shut down a story that investigated political influence.

It was not until now, on the release of the Collins memoir, that I see why Wong-Tung may have been so strident with me.

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) by Fairfax Media in 2014 showed that, on April 3, 2013, just before Key took a business delegation to China, Wong-Tung write to New Zealand’s ambassador to China, Carl Worker, saying Oravida was “desperate for some advice and guidance”.

Wong-Tung reminded Worker that he had met the year before [2012] when he was part of the delegation to China with Collins. Wong-Tung asked for assistance getting the company’s branded fresh milk showcased at two functions during Key’s visit to China. He also asked for help getting approval for a display. It would include a branded billboard, a monitor broadcasting Oravida’s milk video, a refrigerator for the milk and a reception table offering milk tasting.

Fairfax Media reported Wong-Tung made the approach after New Zealand Trade and Enterprise officials had been ‘unable to get authorisation for us to promote ‘pure’ New Zealand product’.

Worker replied, saying he remembered their earlier meetings.

He said he remembered the embassy residence’s kitchen was an ‘enthusiastic customer’ of Oravida’s scampi. But Worker said the Key events were “dramatically different than the promotional events you have participated in with NZTE over the past 12 months”, which were mini-trade shows.

The events [which were scheduled to take place in China as part of Key’s business delegation in April 2013] would promote the overall relationship between China and New Zealand and there would not be “booths, TV monitors or stands”.

Worker rebuffed a request {attributed by Fairfax Media to Julia Xu]to add fresh milk to the menu, saying it “does not quite fit the tone or style of the menu”. Fairfax Media reported that, 13 days later, [mid-April 2013] Xu emailed Worked asking him for help to get in touch with individuals, whose names had been redacted from the OIA emails, who she wanted to mention “Oravida’s potential problems under the new [Chinese] import procedures for dairy products”.

Fairfax Media reported that then-Labour opposition MP, Grant Robertson, accepted Wong-Tung paid for himself and was not an Oravida director when he went with Collins to China in 2012 and met Worker.

“But what is clear from this is that he is using information and contacts that he gained while being on a trip as a spouse of a minister for commercial purposes,” Robertson said.

“He is lobbying to try to get Oravida’s products and information about Oravida involved in the Prime Minister’s visit. That starts to create a conflict.”

Robertson, Fairfax Media reported, said it was not consistent with the Cabinet Manual to get any commercial benefit from the trip, where he was subject to all the diplomatic guidance and hospitality available to spouses.

He said there was a pattern of behaviour of Oravida’s “that they are prepared to use all the contacts that they have got to advance their business.”

If Worker had attended the dinner [in October 2013 – the subject of the later furore] with Collins, that would have contributed to the personal links that Oravida was keen to build, Robertson said.

In my view, based on my reporting of this story and the available public record, Judith Collins and her husband, David Wong-Tung, were well and truly aware of the influence that they could exert on government for Oravida’s benefit. If John Key did hit Collins with a bus, it may have arrived just in time.

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