The Government has come under fire after 3 News revealed Gerry Brownlee was panda shopping in China while hundreds of Kiwis are holed up in Australian detention centres facing deportation.
The Defence Minister is in Chengdu – China's panda breeding capital – meeting with the leadership of the People's Liberation Army.
But today he's visiting a panda breeding facility to deliver a letter from the Wellington City Council expressing interest in bringing pandas to the capital.
"I can't read into what the Government's intentions are," says Wellington's deputy mayor Justin Lester. "Gerry might want to have some cuddles with some pandas and good on him."
Ms Lester says Mr Brownlee's office contacted the council last week saying the Minister would be happy to pass on an "expression of interest" on their behalf.
"We already had the information in terms of we'd supplied [that] to the Government previously, so we did that in a different format and said 'look, we're happy for you to take this'," says Mr Lester.
But while the Government is keen on the panda project, which would use taxpayers' money to bring two pandas to New Zealand, John Key says he didn't know Mr Brownlee was on a panda pursuit.
"Gerry Brownlee is supposed to be in China on Defence Force business, not on a secret panda-buying mission," says Labour leader Andrew Little.
"Pandas don't come cheap. They might be a nice idea, but Mr Brownlee of all people should know there are higher priorities than a panda division."
Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne wasn't impressed about the panda shopping either, tweeting his annoyance at the Government's decision.
The Chinese government charges an annual fee of $1 million to lease its pandas, but Mr Lester hopes New Zealand's relationship with China might mean there could be an alternative to lessen the cost.
"If that cost did eventuate maybe the Government would say that might be our contribution to ensure the strengthening of the relationship with China."
But Opposition parties say there are more important issues to deal with right now.
"The cost of housing, feeding and leasing pandas is considerable. Less than three years ago John Key was saying there were 'higher priorities' for public spending," says Mr Little.
"That hasn't changed. There still are far more important issues for the Government to focus on, including the 150,000 Kiwis who can't get a job, the Auckland housing crisis, a $1.7 billion hole in the health budget and a Defence Force in tatters.
"A secret panda mission doesn't quite cut it when you put it in that context."
The enclosure needed to house a panda here would cost around $10 million, as well as China's annual leasing fee for the animals which would come to around $10 million over 10 years as well.
Wellington Council wants the Government to pay around half the costs.