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Nash should answer questions

Assistant health minister Fiona Nash should answer questions regarding her chief of staff says Labor MP Amanda Rishworth

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Since her late-night revelation to the senate on Tuesday, assistant health minister Fiona Nash has described her chief of staff as having a "shareholding" in a family business that just happens to lobby for the soft drink and confectionary industries.

But Fairfax has found documents lodged with the corporate regulator show more than simply having a "shareholding", Alastair Furnival in fact owns the company in a 50-50 share with his wife, Tracey Cain.

Fiona Nash: her chief of staff has quit.

Fiona Nash: Her chief of staff has quit. Photo: Peter Rae

The revelations raise questions about whether Senator Nash - who has repeatedly stated this week that she was fully aware of the extent of Mr Furnival's involvement with the company - has complied with ministerial standards and rules around contact with lobbyists.

Alastair Furnival resigned on Friday, days after Senator Nash was forced to reveal in Parliament that he still had "a shareholding" in lobbying firm Australian Public Affairs.

But company documents lodged with the corporate regulator indicate Mr Furnival is in fact the co-owner of the company, through a parent company, Strategic Issues Management, which he owns with his wife Tracey Cain. Fairfax Media understands that the Prime Minister's office was aware of Mr Furnival's connection with Australian Public Affairs but had expected him to divest himself of the shareholding.

Alastair Furnival

Alastair Furnival. Photo: Supplied

It is also understood that Mr Furnival's proposed appointment was held up by the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, due to concerns over his background and commercial interests. A source revealed there was a level of frustration within the Prime Minister's inner circle over Mr Furnival, which had led to his initial appointment being temporary and subject to adequate performance. However, his appointment was eventually confirmed without any attempt to ensure he had cut his ties to the lobbying firm.

The resignation comes a week after Fairfax Media revealed Mr Furnival and Senator Nash intervened to take down a new health rating website, only hours after it was published.

Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King said Mr Furnival's resignation only left more questions.

"If this was approved through the ministerial appointment process that went through the Prime Minister's office, how could this happen if due process was followed?" she said.

She said Senator Nash had still not adequately explained why she had decided to intervene and pull down the health star website.

"She had no reason to do that, nor in fact any authority to do that, and she has failed the entire week to actually explain that," she said.

Consumer and health groups have blasted Senator Nash's decision to pull the site down, two months after she axed the funding for Australia's peak drug and alcohol body, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia.

Public Health Association head Michael Moore said preventive health groups were frustrated they had not been able to meet the minister since her appointment.

"I would like the opportunity to explain what this website would do and why organisations like mine had put so much time and money into this process," he said.

Consumers Health Forum spokesman Mark Metherell said it was disturbing that the government did not appear to be acting in the interests of Australians' health.

"The Prime Minister declares Australia is open for business," he said. "That should not be to the detriment of consumers."

Senator Nash has repeatedly claimed that Mr Furnival has no conflict of interest, as he distanced himself from the company he owns, receives no income from it, and his wife had committed not to undertake further lobbying in the health area after his appointment.

When he resigned, Mr Furnival said his wife and the minister had been dragged into a "smear campaign".

"I have [resigned] with a clear conscience but with recognition that this political attack is a distraction from the important health issues being effectively addressed by this government," he said.

Senator Nash did not respond to Fairfax's questions.