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Official's lobbyist wife drawn into star rating web site ruckus

By RJ Whitehead , 12-Feb-2014
Last updated on 13-Feb-2014 at 06:08 GMT2014-02-13T06:08:55Z

Official's lobbyist wife drawn into star rating web site ruckus

It took two years to develop, had the support of the Council of Australian Governments ministerial council and only lasted a matter of hours. Now the swift demise of the country’s controversial health star rating web site has left a minister and a senior official fighting for their careers.

The long awaited move for food manufacturers to voluntarily label their products with easy-to-understand nutritional information went live last week, but an accompanying site to explain the new system to consumers was taken offline eight hours later on the orders of assistant health minister Fiona Nash and her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, according to information received by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Inadvertent error

The official line was that the site had just been a “draft”, and an “inadvertent error” had led to it going online.

"It would have been extremely confusing for consumers had that website been allowed to remain in place, and we certainly on this side of the chamber aren't going to allow consumers to be in the position whereby they are placed in a very confusing situation,” Nash announced during Senate Question Time.

However, the SMH has rejected this view after speaking to two sitting state health ministers and public health groups, who claimed the supposed draft was actually the finished product.

Conflict of interest

Meanwhile, the opposition Labor party has demanded that Nash and Furnival reveal their links to the food industry—not least as the chief of staff is married to a senior lobbyist who represents the Australian Beverages Council and Mondelez Australia, which owns the Kraft peanut butter, Cadbury and Oreo brands, among others.

Previously, Furnival acted as a spokesman for Kraft/Cadbury, and is the former chairman of Australian Public Affairs, while his wife, Tracey Cain, is sole director and secretary of the lobby group.

The government has a responsibility to act in the best interests of all Australians,” said Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King. “It is for Senator Nash to explain how her actions and those of her office demonstrate this.”

Having been asked in parliament to do just that by the Senate’s opposition leader, Penny Wong, Nash said it was "quite unworthy" of Wong to pursue such a line of questioning.

"There is no connection whatsoever between my chief-of-staff and the company Australian Public Affairs. My chief of staff has no connection with the food industry, and is simply doing his job as my chief of staff,” Nash added.

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