Parliament has censured Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash for misleading the Senate and refusing to produce documentation about her employment of a junk food industry lobbyist in her office.
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Senate censures Fiona Nash
A fiery debate as the Senate censures Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash over conflict of interest claims and for not providing the upper house with requested documents.
Labor says Senator Nash’s position is no longer tenable and has called on her to resign after the censure motion passed 37 to 31 votes.
Only three such censure motions have passed in the past 10 years.
Senator Nash had until early Wednesday afternoon to produce a document that she claimed outlined the measures she put in place to address the fact her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, co-owned a lobbying firm that did extensive work for soft drink and confectionery companies.
Until his resignation last month Mr Furnival was a director and co-owner with his wife, of the company that owned lobbying firm Australian Public Affairs.
Fairfax Media uncovered his connection with the junk food industry after he and Senator Nash intervened to take down a newly published healthy food rating website.
Senator Penny Wong said the Australian public was asking whether Senator Nash’s title “should be changed from Assistant Minister for Health to the Senator for snack foods”.
She said she moved the censure motion because the senator had made a series of decisions that warranted censure, including failing to produce the document and repeatedly misleading the Senate when she claimed Mr Furnival had complied with conflict of interest rules.
“I should not need to move this censure, the Prime Minister should have acted,” she said. “The Senate, the press gallery, the Australian public have been treated with contempt by an Assistant Minister for Health who has an unhealthy attitude to misleading the Parliament.”
While a censure motion will not have a direct impact, it will increase pressure on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to discipline Senator Nash.
The Parliament House website says while censure motions have no direct constitutional or legal consequences, they act ‘‘as an expression of the Senate’s disapproval of actions or policies [that] may have significant political impact’’.
In the lower house, Mr Abbott insisted neither Senator Nash nor Mr Furnival had committed any wrongdoing.
‘‘Ministers who behave inappropriately will be punished. But no-one has done anything wrong in the case that this shadow minister is so preoccupied with,’’ Mr Abbott said in response to a question from Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King.
‘‘Not a single person has done anything wrong in this case... not only is there no fire, there is not even any smoke... Frankly, Labor should find a different tree to bark up.’’
Mr Abbott’s remarks appear to contradict his words in Parliament last week, in which he said Mr Furnival had resigned because he was ‘‘dilatory’’ in divesting himself of a shareholding.
Senator Wong later told reporters a censure motion was ''the most serious action the Senate can take against a Minister''.
''We did not move this motion lightly... we have given this Minister ample opportunity... to explain herself to the Australian parliament and through the chamber to the Australian people.'''She said what happened next was up to the Prime Minister.
''The Senate has made it clear, she has been censured, she should resign. Ultimately, that's a question for Tony Abbott.''
Ms King said the website should be reinstated immediately.
Earlier in the Senate Senator Wong said Senator Nash had never adequately explained why the healthy food website was taken down at the same time as “her most senior advisor owned a lobbying firm which profited from helping food industry clients get what they wanted from government”.
“This is a textbook example of a conflict of interest… and it had real-world consequences,” she said.
But leader of the government in the Senate, Senator Eric Abetz, said Labor was only using the motion to distract from its problems.
“We have had question time after question time, we have seen Senate estimates going on and on, and Senator Nash has given a fantastic account of herself and of her ministerial role and responsibilities,” Senator Abetz said. “She has set a high standard and has answered all the questions in great detail.”
Earlier Senator Nash said she had repeatedly explained that Mr Furnival’s wife Tracey Cain had agreed not to lobby government staff or ministers on behalf of her junk food industry clients.
“There is no rule against somebody who has previously worked in government relations becoming a member of staff,” she said. “There was no conflict of interest, the appropriate undertakings were put in place and they were adhered to.”
She said that the letter that had been requested involved “personal information” about Mr Furnival and it was not usual practice to publicly divulge such information.
The statement of standards for ministerial staff says that staff must divest themselves or relinquish control of interests in any private company or business and/or direct interest in any public company involved in the area of their ministers’ portfolio responsibilities. It also states they should not detain directorships of any companies without written agreement from the minister, and should comply with the Lobbyists Code of Conduct.
The statement of ministerial ethics says that ministers must ensure the conduct within their office is in accordance with rules that include only holding directorships when it has been determined there will be no conflict of interest, that lobbyists are registered on the lobbyist register, that shares in private companies that operate in their areas of ministerial responsibility and that divestment of those shares to family members is not acceptable.