Perception matters immensely when it comes to politics, but reality matters even more. So let's talk about realities

Relationship management is a tough part of being a politician, but gee whizz everyone in parliament seems to be falling over themselves to stuff it up this week, from Judith Collins to Shane Jones and beyond.

Whether it's because of the potential for favourtism that comes with power or the potntial shape of the next government, all the big stories at the moment seems to come back to relationships, and the politicians involved don't seem to get why it matters.

Judith Collins' travails this weekare of her own making, due to a carelessness that we've hardly seen in her disciplined rise up the political ladder. But the strong character and sheer bloody-mindedness that have served her so well have exposed her this week. Following her instincts, she's tried to barge and bluster her way through questions around her visit to the Oravida offices in China, but has come a cropper as a result.

Collins has repeatedly insisted that it's her job to back New Zealand companies overseas and to champion – but somehow not "endorse" – their work. And of course we do want ministers helping New Zealand companies around the world, where appropriate. What Collins refuses to accept is that her championing of Oravida, given her husband's place on the board and her close personal friensdhip with others leading the business crosses a line. And it's not just a perception line.

The Prime Minister at the weekend was saying Collins had not made a mistake, but that she had to be careful of perceptions. Even last night, Collins was on Campbell Live defending the perceptions around the revelation yesterday that she didn't only have a cup of tea at Oravida's offices in Beijing, but had dinner with the bosses as well.

Collins asked if it was wrong of her to visit Oravida, would it also be wrong to visit Fonterra's outposts around the world. The answer, of course, is no. But she didn't just visit Oravida, she appeared in a photo "full of praise" for their product. So the real question is – should she appear in a photo endorsing Fonterra products? That's debateable, as the cabinet manual raises pretty clear questions about endorsements. But in most cases it's probably OK. The difference here though is that her family doesn't profit directly if Fonterra does well from such promotions. If Oravida does better, so does her family.

The other distinction Collins seems determined to overlook is that there are hundreds of New Zealand businesses in China which would love the boost a ministerial visit gives. But instead of visit one of them, she visited the one her husband helps direct and her friends run. Why did she visit that one and not another? Because she knows all about that company and because of the family and friends connection. Because knowing them means she can just squeeze them in at the end of a busy day, as a favour.

And that's the problem. It's not just a perception, it's a reality. Whatever boost a New Zealand firm in China might get from a ministerial visit, Oravida got it because of its specific access to a minister.

You can make a similar point with the newly revealed dinner. Is there "a perception of conflict of interest" because she attended a dinner with a senior Chinese border agency official present? Again, it's more than perception. If getting product through customs is crucial to your business and impressing border control agencies helps that, then a dinner with a minister of course offers an actual – not just perceived – benefit.

Again, presumably there are other New Zealand companies who would appreciate such help in their relationship management. But the one that got the help was the one Collins' husband directs.

These are not really subtle distinctions and – for all that it's a small country and negotiating these lines can be fraught – the obvious answer for politicians is to leave the visits and praise to colleagues who aren't directly related to or close friends of those involved in the company.

On the other side of aisle, Labour and the Greens have struggled to manage their relationships. Well, David Cunliffe and co have struggled to hide the fact that the Greens aren't as indispensable to them as we've been led to believe.

As I posted a week and a half ago, Cunliffe was shown up on The Nation saying that a Labour-Greens deal was by no means a guarantee despite months of assumptions that the two parties are effectively a centre-left bloc. This week that relationship has been strained further by Cunliffe still failing to show the Greens the love they expect and Shane Jones taking repeated shots across their bows.

The uncomfortable truth is that Cunliffe's Labour could well do what Clark's Labour did in the past and opt for New Zealand First as a preferred partner. Sure, Cunliffe has finally found the language he needed weeks ago and said he'd talk to his biggest potential coalition partner first – presumably the Greens. But that is no guarantee of a coalition depsite their policy compatability. Cunliffe's first, uncertain answers were the most honest ones.

Why? Winston Peters prefers fewer parties in a coalition. If Labour can somehow get to the high 30s in the polls and Peters get his party back into parliament with something over five percent, have no doubt that New Zealand First will be the first cab off the rank.

If Peters is kingmaker, well, the kings (National and Labour) have to deal and the Greens are just another card to be played and sacrificed. Now you might say that Labour's hopes of getting enough votes to need only New Zealand First as a partner are slim. and you might argue that Peters will be looking at multi-party coalitions whether he looks right or left. But these are the equations being done behind the scenes.

Again, forget the perception of partnership between green and red. Oh, many in Labour would love to be part of a Labour-Greens government. And sure, they genuinely work together on all sorts of things. But the reality is numbers and if Winston has them, he holds all the cards.

(Which is why Winston Peters is on The Nation this Saturday at 9.30am / Sunday 10:10a, on TV3).


Comments (22)

by Tom Semmens on March 13, 2014
Tom Semmens

To much time hanging around mainland Chinese whose attitudes towards nepotism, cronyism, and corruption are... shall we say... somewhat more relaxed than ours seems to have dulled Judith Collin's sense of right and wrong.

by william blake on March 13, 2014
william blake

Arrogant of Collins to behave this way but she is a Tory, the really scary thought is that she was in China looking for ways to improve our justice system.

McCarten may be perceiving the Greens as a centrist vote and aiming further left, perhaps policy announcements would be better than dissing allies.

by Bruce Ellis on March 13, 2014
Bruce Ellis

It's starting to get some traction, but I haven't heard anyone yet ask Judith Collins directly about the fact that these matters don't seem to have anything to do with her main portfolios of Justice and Corrections and hence raising in my mind an even greater perception of a conflict of interest.

by Siena Denton on March 13, 2014
Siena Denton

"Judith Collins went on a taxpayer-funded visit to China last year. In her public role as Justice Minister, she was there to talk about our system.

"But she was also welcomed into a New Zealand export company that her husband has a private interest in." He's a director.

She says the purpose of her visit was "to actually have a cup of tea on the way to the airport".

Since that report was published on 8 March 2014....traction turned into turbo-charged.

Judith Collins, you call her "strong character and sheer bloody-mindedness" I call her arrogant and full of herself.

She's also not averse to being a bully herself as was the case when she butted her nose (in a comment outside of the House, "sensitive wee sausage" to describe Green Party co-leader Meteria Turei), into the Turei/Tolley verbal encounter during a Parliamentary Q & A time in the debating chamber.

This woman of "strong character and sheer bloody-mindedness", couldn't even handle being called on Twitter a...."well... sensitive BIG SAVELOY then", by yours truly when she tweeted to another tweeter who called her "a sensitive wee sausage"  and she replied "can't you be a little more original" That tweeter was too slow on the uptake, so I sub-tweeted away and she began to unfollow those who had retweeted the tweet - "strong" and tough alright, or only when it makes her look Goooood!

My opinion was that the Speaker of the House should have ordered both Turei and Tolley to withdraw their comments and apologise to the House but as per usual, Mr Speaker can only see through his blue smurf-like coloured eyeballs.

She's also undermined a report ie David Bain submitted by a top-class member of the Canadian judiciary, Justice Binnie and who was the one who sought an independent report?

Judith Collins attempted to engage in a coverup with her pitiful excuse of a drop by for a cup of tea on the way to the airport.

Oh how the high and mighty has fallen of her pedestool and CRUSHED herself!

Karma's a B&&&h!

by Rich on March 13, 2014

If Winston gets 5% and Labour 30%, where are the other 15% of MPs for a majority going to come from?


by william blake on March 13, 2014
william blake

You are quite right Rich, it does not add up. Jones dissing the Greens won't find Labour the extra 15 - 20 seats it would need to coalesce with NZF.

If Shane continues with his ' we'll burn that bridge when we cross it' approach I think the left will collapse.

by BeShakey on March 13, 2014

If Labour can somehow get to the high 30s in the polls and Peters get his party back into parliament with something over five percent

by Tim Watkin on March 13, 2014
Tim Watkin

Rich, the premise of Labour and NZ First relies on Labour getting to late-30s, as I wrote. NZF gets 6%, say and there's some wasted vote... But don't forget that the Greens' vote wouldn't go to the other side. The Greens, even if rejected and miffed, wouldn't stop a Labour-led government from forming.

by Andrew Osborn on March 13, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Possibly Labour is planning to claw back the 10% they lost a few years ago....from the Greens.

Because so far, none of their policy statements (nor rhetoric) indicate they're interested in trying to take votes from the centre ground.






by Fentex on March 13, 2014

She says the purpose of her visit was "to actually have a cup of tea on the way to the airport".

Has anyone looked into if this makes sense - was Oravida on the way to the airport from her hotel or prior engagement?

by BeShakey on March 13, 2014

Possibly Labour is planning to claw back the 10% they lost a few years ago....from the Greens

You might think Labour is dumb, but surely not so dumb they can't figure out that no matter how many votes they take from the Greens they won't win. To win they will need to either (or both) take votes from the centre/right or increase turnout among their supporters.

by Rod on March 13, 2014

Tim in your rely to Rich: (for some reason I can't reply)

Your argument is if Labour get 39% of the vote, then decide to form a government with NZ First say 5-6% lets say roughly 45.5% then the Greens will just roll over and go along with it on conference and supply?


I'm not a mathematician but the numbers just don't add up, to pass legislation a Labour/Nzfirst Government would need Green or 'National support', so are you saying a vote for a Labour/NzFirst coalition is possibly a vote for National, because Winston will take the best offer every time.

by Nick Gibbs on March 13, 2014
Nick Gibbs

Shane Jones certainly is trying to win friends and influence voters. Voters in the centre/right that is. He also seems to be auditioning for the leadership, just not the leadership of Labour. Maybe he's got his eye on NZ First when Winston retires after the next election.

by Andrew Osborn on March 14, 2014
Andrew Osborn


You might think Labour is dumb, but surely not so dumb they can't figure out that no matter how many votes they take from the Greens they won't win. To win they will need to either (or both) take votes from the centre/right or increase turnout among their supporters.

Hey, if they could do maths they wouldn't be Socialists ;-)

by Alan Johnstone on March 14, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The previous labour leadership, saw the greens as comrades and part of a broad progressive front with common aims. Labour suffered from this as voters saw them as interchangable. A year ago we had people openly speculating about Dr Norman as deputy PM / finance minister and calling him "the real leader of the opposition" 

The new labour leadership is clearly attempting to differeniate itself from the greens. Hence Shane Jones giving them a public kicking. I don't think for a second he's gone rouge and is doing this without approval.

There is a fairly large group of people in this country who are not by instinct National voters, but are hostile to the Greens and their policies. Right now, these voters have no obvious home, some driftted to NZF, others are "soft" national supporters.

The Greens have played a poor game, they have nowhere left to go, no real alternative but to support a labour led administration. Given the chance, Cunliffe will stab them in the back. Winston may extract a price for support, but at least it'll be rational and clear. The Greens quasi religious viewpoint is harder to marry with the real politik of power

by william blake on March 14, 2014
william blake

"The Greens have played a poor game"

but better than; Act, NZF, Maori Party, Coservative, Mana and Dunne put together.

"quasi religious"  is it putting gaia before mammon or just having having principles? 

by Alan Johnstone on March 14, 2014
Alan Johnstone

""quasi religious"  is it putting gaia before mammon or just having having principles? "

It's believing in "gaia"

by Andrew Osborn on March 14, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Alan  - 100%  

I think the Greens have played a good hand so far. They may be crackpots but their PR is excellent.

Their ultimate demise likely happens when/if they actually get into government. This is when reality sets in. Under MMP minor coalition partners die when in government. Either they try and implement their crazy policies and are thrown out on their ear three years later or they succumb to their major partner and the idealistic faithful walk away from them.


by stuart munro on March 16, 2014
stuart munro

Well Andrew O., the Greens are responsible for nearly 40% of new legislation anyway - both Labour and Gnats regularly purloin their policies. The crackpots are ACT and fellow travellers - failed economists who have by failing trained the public to reject their dogma.

Shane Jones, in his dog whistle attacks on the Greens (which made you bark as usual) is merely supporting the rightwing bloc. It's the best the right can do, having neither policy nor results - but not remotely clever for anyone seeking a future in the party of Michael Joseph Savage. Perhaps a new position will become available for him as shadow minister of dodgy dairy dealings when he defects to the Gnats. A long stretch in opposition awaits him.

by Andrew Osborn on March 16, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Stuart - you made my point for me. Thanks!

by stuart munro on March 17, 2014
stuart munro

Someone always has to. The Left does the work, the Right takes the credit, but no-one is deceived.

by Richard Aston on March 17, 2014
Richard Aston

Thanks Stuart , saved me from reacting to someone painting the Greens as crackpots with crazy policies. That old fear tactic is still working apprarently.


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