The Coalition took a long time to settle the appointment of ministerial staffers with ministers grumbling about the role of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin in checking the credentials of applicants. The grumblings were deemed worthy of bearing by PM Tony Abbott because of the benefits that would flow from stopping silly appointments by ministers not conscious of the future damage that conflicts of interest can cause. Alas, it seems, the highly centralised appointments system failed. Having a food industry lobbyist on the staff of a health minister – albeit a junior one but the one with responsibility for food matters – was risky enough. But not ensuring that there was a complete break from the lobbying business was downright stupid. Thus the Abbott government is now going through its first little conflict of interest kerfuffle for breaching its own statement of standards for ministerial staff. Those rules insist that ministers and their staff must disclose any real or apparent conflict of interest and divest themselves of any interests in private companies involved in the area of their ministerial responsibilities.
Alastair Furnival, the adviser who intervened to have the Department of Health take down a new healthy food star rating website, retains his shares in the lobbying business, now run by his wife Tracey Cain, that used to act for companies in the soft drink and confectionery industries. The assurance by Ms Cain that she had not made any representations on behalf of food industry clients since September helps mitigate the political damage but does not remove the suspicion that the Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash has acted in a way favourable to the junk food industry.
The Senate estimates committee dealing with health will find this a fertile area for enquiry when next it meets with particular interest in the initial claim that the healthy food star rating system website was put up by accident rather than design. The reallocation of responsibility within the Health Department for the now deferred ratings system makes that seem a most unlikely occurrence. On the Fairfax websites this morning, Amy Corderoy, Health Editor of theSydney Morning Herald, reported that the senior government bureaucrat in charge of the new healthy food star ratings has been stripped of responsibility for the program.
In an email obtained by Fairfax Media, Kathy Dennis, the assistant secretary in the Healthy Living and Food Policy branch of the Department of Health, said she would no longer be in charge of the healthy star ratings, which is a system for food manufacturers to voluntarily label their product packaging with easy-to-understand health information.
“I am writing to provide you with updated information about arrangements for the Front-of-Pack Labelling Secretariat, following a restructure within the Department of Health,” Ms Dennis writes. She states that she will continue to be in charge of all other food matters beside the healthy food ratings, which she has worked on for the past two years.
“I look forward to continuing to work with you on all other food matters,” she says.