It has been a very long time since allegations of corruption
have been levelled at a Cabinet minister with such a degree
of seriousness as was apparent in Parliament on Wednesday
The last such comparable occasion was probably the Marginal
Lands Board Affair during the Muldoon government in the early
1980s which saw three National Party Cabinet ministers
embroiled in a loan scandal.
They were officially cleared, but some of their actions were
deemed to be unwise.
Those Opposition parties seeking the prized scalp of Judith
Collins have yet to come up with proof that she used her
ministerial status for private gain during her visit to China
What Labour and New Zealand First have done is reveal more
information about the activities of the milk exporting
company Oravida and its relationship with National Party
Meanwhile, Ms Collins' refusal to answer key questions about
her role in that relationship has fuelled speculation she has
something to hide.
On Wednesday morning, there was a distinct feeling around
Parliament that Ms Collins' future as a minister - she was
also under pressure for her seemingly less than rapid
response to the latest crisis involving her accident
compensation responsibilities - might be starting to hang in
The Opposition could certainly smell their favourite
commodity - blood.
But the sense of anticipation rapidly dissipated as both Ms
Collins and the Prime Minister negotiated question-time in
Parliament without making any gaffes.
Ms Collins' tormentors instead let fly in the following
free-for-all general debate where the word ''corruption'' got
an extensive airing.
That Labour and New Zealand First - to use the parliamentary
lexicon - were able to make so many ''imputations of improper
motives'' against Ms Collins was simply down to National MPs
not demanding that the Speaker stop them from casting
''personal reflections'' against Ms Collins.
One of Parliament's more obscure rules stipulates that if MPs
believe another member is truly guilty of corruption, they
must put up a notice of motion formally charging that member
In the interests of transparency, they are not supposed to
keep slagging off that member by making veiled suggestions of
corruption in debate after debate.
Such a motion would be embarrassing for Ms Collins,
particularly given her responsibilities as Justice Minister.
But the motion would be voted down by National and its
Or, if National could not get the numbers to defeat it, it
would be left to wither on the order paper, Parliament's
day-to-day written agenda which the governing party controls.
Or so Ms Collins would be safe in assuming.
Or would she?
What is interesting is that Ms Collins got no help from
fellow National MPs on Wednesday. Perhaps they thought she
was well capable of looking after herself.
But no-one on National's side of the House rushed to her
defence after she had left the chamber and Labour and New
Zealand First started to really hammer the notion that she
was guilty of a serious conflict of interest during her China
trip and should resign forthwith.
Not a single National MP felt compelled to get to his or her
feet to raise the necessary point of order to prompt the
Speaker, David Carter, or his assistants subsequently
deputising for him to order David Cunliffe, his Labour
colleague Grant Robertson, and Winston Peters to all desist
from repeatedly declaring that Ms Collins had been corrupt in
using her status as a minister to pull rank with a senior
Chinese official and oblige him to remove the Fonterra
botulism scare-enforced import blockade on the goods produced
by Oravida, the milk exporting company which includes Ms
Collins' husband as one of its directors.
The reluctance of her fellow National MPs to come to her aid
no doubt in part reflects their annoyance that she was so
silly, or so convinced of her own invincibility that the
alarm bells simply failed to ring and alert her to the
obvious perception of a conflict of interest which is a
definite no-no according to the Cabinet Manual and something
which she now acknowledges she was guilty of.
Labour and Mr Peters, however, are now arguing it is no
longer a question of perception, it is a matter of fact that
Ms Collins' presence at an Oravida-organised dinner in
Beijing was designed to persuade the Chinese official who was
also a guest to lift the import freeze.
Ms Collins says the matter was never discussed. Mr Cunliffe
told Parliament it did not have to be.
Chinese culture meant the official would have got the message
simply from Ms Collins' presence - and through her husband's
connection to Oravida stood to gain financially from this
wielding of her ministerial mana.
As far as Ms Collins' National Party colleagues are
concerned, her crime is political, not financial.
The Oravida Affair has dominated the headlines for several
days not just once, but twice in the space of barely a month.
That is not entirely Ms Collins' fault as information has
seeped out from elsewhere but it suggests her political
management skills have gone seriously skew-whiff.
The party knows it is operating within a tiny margin when it
comes to the difference between victory and defeat at
September's election. There is absolutely no room for
Discipline is paramount. The sight of a senior front-bench
minister of Ms Collins' calibre suddenly going off the rails
in such spectacular fashion must be deeply worrying for John
After a brief period of contrition following the exposure of
her first round of questionable behaviour in connection to
Oravida, she has again reverted to her trademark belligerence
when it comes to staring down adversaries.
But what was previously an endearing kind of cynicism which
was devastating in its impact because it also happened to be
funny, now more often than not sounds just like plain old
John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald