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Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash has contradicted Prime Minister Tony Abbott, insisting her former chief of staff had done nothing wrong despite his being forced to resign by a conflict-of-interest controversy embroiling Senator Nash's office.
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Labor targets embattled Assistant Health Minister Senator Fiona Nash in question time, but the Prime Minister maintains she has done nothing wrong.
The claim came as fresh questions arose as to how chocolate maker Cadbury came to receive a $16 million pledge from the Coalition before last year's federal election and it was reported that a food lobby group contacted Senator Nash's office to raise concerns about the site the day it was pulled down.
Senator Nash's chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, resigned this month when it was revealed by Fairfax Media that he had retained ownership of a lobbying company in breach of the ministerial staff code of conduct. This followed a decision by the minister's office to take down a healthy food website seen as hostile to the snackfood industry.
Mr Furnival had worked for Cadbury and months earlier had lobbied the Tasmanian government on behalf of the company to secure $400,000 for a visitor centre.
Pictures located by the Seven Network show Mr Furnival was at the Cadbury announcement in August sitting with Mr Abbott and other senior figures.
The pictures suggest Mr Furnival, who went on to hold a key post in the Abbott government with critical responsibility for food policy, was central to Coalition discussions resulting in a promised transfer of taxpayer funds to the company.
Mr Abbott announced the $16 million pledge during the election campaign. He has since refused to say what links he had to Mr Furnival and what role Mr Furnival might have played in brokering the proposed transfer of millions in taxpayer funds to a multinational-owned company.
Also sitting with the pair was Liberal Senate leader, Eric Abetz, and Liberal veteran Philip Ruddock.
Mr Abbott had told Parliament on Tuesday that Mr Furnival had resigned a fortnight ago because he had been ''dilatory'' in his requirement to divest himself of shares in the company.
But Senator Nash said Mr Furnival ''complied with all the requirements to ensure there was no real or perceived conflict of interest. He resigned because - given this issue was creating a degree of media interest, was causing a distraction for the government, was also having other impacts - he felt it appropriate to offer me his resignation,'' she said.
The different accounts by Senator Nash and Mr Abbott prompted the opposition to ask Mr Abbott whether he or the senator had misled Parliament. Mr Abbott deflected the detail and said both he and his minister were correct.
Senator Nash also said she had done nothing wrong despite the Prime Minister's office advising that it was the responsibility of ministers to ensure there was no conflict of interest among their staff. Her assertions also appeared at odds with her previous statement to the Senate on February 11 that her then chief of staff had no links ''whatsoever'' to the firm Australian Public Affairs.
Meanwhile, the ABC has reported that the Food and Grocery Council, which has opposed the food rating system site, contacted the Senator about it the day it went live. The site was pulled down the same day.
Chief executive Gary Dawson told the ABC that the council expressed a view on the day the site went live that it believed it was ''premature'', but said he did not ask for it to be pulled down.
In a fiery session of the Senate estimates committee, the embattled minister revealed she had known Mr Furnival for years and was well aware of his ownership stake in the lobbying firm and links to the snackfood industry.
Australian Public Affairs had undertaken significant lobbying work on behalf of Cadbury, a company known to be hostile to an initiative using a star system to rate the healthiness of snackfoods.
She said her mind had been turning to his separation from the company - a separation which she claimed had been promised by Mr Furnival but not achieved.
The opposition has demanded to know what led to Mr Furnival's employment by the Abbott government, and what discussions took place between Senator Nash's office and that of the Prime Minister.
''I am not commenting on any discussions I had with the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister's office,'' she said.
For his part, Mr Abbott characterised the controversy as not even a ''zephyr in a thimble''. While the minister refused to answer questions about whether she was asked to resign, Mr Abbott eventually said, ''I've had no such conversation with her.''
Labor continually accused her of misleading the Senate.
The question of Mr Furnival's wrongdoing or otherwise was not the only one in which the minister was contradicted by others in the government. Government officials have contradicted statements by her on Wednesday that Mr Furnival's company only listed junk food companies as clients on its lobbying register entry because of delays in removing them.
Mr Furnival worked in Senator Nash's office for about five months while the lobbying firm he co-owned with his wife was listed as representing soft drink and confectionery companies, but the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has confirmed it takes at most two days to update the register.
Senator Nash also refused to answer questions about whether Mr Furnival's company, Australian Public Affairs, had continued to represent junk food industry clients while he worked in her office. Instead, she relied on statements from Mr Furnival's wife, Australian Public Affairs co-owner Tracy Cain, that the company had agreed not to lobby her, Health Minister Peter Dutton or the Health Department.
Under questioning from Labor's John Faulkner she said she had given her explanation for the delay ''in good faith''. ''… my advice was there was a period of time before the companies could be removed,'' she said. ''From recollection, and I can't be sure, I think it was my former chief of staff [who told me that].''
Since Fairfax exposed that Mr Furnival was co-owner, with his wife, of Australian Public Affairs, it has updated its entry on the lobbyists register to remove its food industry clients. Up until two days ago it also listed Ms Cain as its sole owner, but this has now been removed and replaced with other company names.