Government official who opposed healthy food website owns shares in food lobbying company

    Labor has accused assistant health minister Fiona Nash of breaching parliamentary rules on conflict of interest after she failed to disclose her chief of staff had shares in a company that lobbied for the junk food industry at the same time as he was involved in high-level negotiations on healthy food policy.

    Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said Senator Nash needed to make an immediate statement as to why she made no declaration of any conflicts 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 this 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.

    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.

    Ms Nash revealed in a late-night statement to the senate on Tuesday that her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, owns shares in the lobbying company Australian Public Affairs – only hours after she had first told Parliament there was “no connection whatsoever” between her chief of staff and the company.

    Australian Public Affairs is listed on the lobbyist register as representing the Australian Beverages Council and Mondelez Australia, which owns the Kraft peanut butter, Cadbury and Oreo brands, among others.

    The latest development comes after Fairfax Media reported Mr Furnival is also married to the head of the company. A spokeswoman told Fairfax Media that Mr Furnival had “no role whatsoever in his wife's business”.

    In Parliament on Tuesday night, Senator Nash stated that "for the sake of completeness" she was updating her earlier statements to include Mr Furnival's shareholding.

    She said that he had no active involvement with the company, and "arrangements" had been put in place so that his business activities would not conflict with his role. His wife had committed to not lobbying the health minister, assistant health minister or health department.

    Health groups have condemned the intervention of Senator Nash and Mr Furnival in the health star rating food site, which set up a system that enabled food manufacturers to label their products with easy-to-understand nutritional information.

    The site was developed through a Council of Australian Governments process run by state ministers, and was launched last Wednesday with the wide support of health groups, including the Heart Foundation, CHOICE, and the Public Health Association of Australia.

    Fairfax Media understands that Mr Furnival insisted staff take the website down – a directive that was refused, only to have Senator Nash intervene with the same request. The site was taken down by 8pm that same night.

    Public Health Association head Michael Moore said the decision to take down the site was inappropriate.

    "The disappointing thing to me was that it was a unilateral decision that overrode a decision of the food ministers," he said.

    The story Government official who opposed healthy food website owns shares in food lobbying company first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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