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Pressure is building on Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash's chief of staff to resign after allegations he did not disclose financial ties to the junk food industry.
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Senator Nash reveals staffer's lobby links
Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash tells the Senate her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, owns shares in a company that lobbies for the junk food industry.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has not commented publicly about Alastair Furnival's involvement in high-level negotiations over a healthy food rating system. Neither Mr Furnival nor Senator Nash revealed Mr Furnival's shareholding in a company that lobbies for the Australian Beverages Council, Kraft peanut butter, Cadbury and Oreo, among others.
Public health and consumer groups were left stunned last week when the new health star rating website was published, only to be taken down hours later after intervention from Senator Nash and Mr Furnival.
Senior public health experts are now questioning whether Senator Nash remains suitable for the health prevention portfolio, while Labor has called on her to fully explain how she and Mr Furnival have complied with ministerial standards on conflict of interest.
Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King said Senator Nash needed to make an immediate statement addressing why she had not declared any conflict of interest when she chaired a joint ministerial council on food policy last year. She also needed to make clear when she was first made aware of the conflict of interest.
“It's difficult to reconcile how this minister, who is responsible for preventive health measures, deems the conduct of her office to be appropriate,” she said.
There was a developing view at the highest level of government late on Wednesday that Mr Furnival's position was increasingly untenable, with government sources admitting the chief of staff was being given time and space to consider resigning, rather than forcing Senator Nash to fire him.
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Tony Abbott said all ministerial staff were required to abide by the Statement of Standards for ministerial staff and she directed Fairfax Media to Senator Nash's statement in Parliament.
On Wednesday, Senator Nash told a torrid Senate question time that Mr Furnival did not have a conflict of interest because he was not earning money from his shares, had resigned his position and was not involved in the running of Australian Public Affairs.
“My chief of staff took proper and appropriate steps to prevent any conflict of interest ... by withdrawing from any work for APA and on that basis there is no conflict of interest at that meeting,” she said.
But Labor senator John Faulkner, an architect of the standards, said the code was “clear and categorical”.
“The code says absolutely categorically that nothing but divestment is adequate. It doesn't mean you should just put in place an agreement - the whole concept of conflict of interest is so fundamental that divestment is absolutely required,” he said.
While public health and consumer groups have been reluctant to weigh in on the political scandal, one of Australia's foremost public health experts, Mike Daube, said he was beginning to wonder if Senator Nash was the most appropriate person for the prevention portfolio.
"Her party still takes tobacco funding; she has already moved to defund the national alcohol treatment and services peak body; her chief of staff worked until very recently for the food industry; and her actions over the 'star ratings' website look decidedly industry-friendly.
“It will be very hard to have confidence that this minister understands the importance of prevention or will take on powerful industry groups.”
In a statement posted to the Australian Public Affairs website, company head Tracey Cain, who is Mr Furnival's wife, said that since his appointment to the government a “process” had been started to transfer his shareholdings to her and the company had undertaken no lobbying on behalf of the food industry.
Despite rumours that Mr Furnival was given his position at the behest of the Prime Minister's office, Fairfax Media understands that he was both nominated and pushed for by Senator Nash.