Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Assistant Minister for Health; Censure
The substance of the defence from the government is that Senator Nash has provided answers to the allegations before her. It was the substance of the defence outlined by Senator Fifield and, previously, by Senator Abetz and Senator Brandis. On that we agree: she has provided answers. She has provided answers to the Senate during question time, she has provided answers during Senate estimates and she has provided answers here today. What we take issue with is the content of those answers. That is the issue here: it is not good enough to say that you have answered allegations, and that is the end of the matter. It is the content of those answers that is at issue.
Senator Wong and Senator Faulkner have gone through the sequence of events in great detail. I will not do that again. I will not dwell on the specific issues that have been addressed. I will, however, turn to a few points. The first issue is that—and people who are following this debate may not necessarily have followed every detail, so I will try and summarise it—during Senate estimates, Senator Nash said, clearly she knew Mr Furnival; she had known him for years; they had a longstanding relationship; due diligence was carried out; and they were fully aware of his relationship with the lobbying firm. There were no questions about that. What I cannot square off is that, in Senate question time, Senator Nash went on to say, very clearly:
There is no connection whatsoever between my chief of staff and the company Australian Public Affairs.
I understand that sometimes we are caught on the hop in this place. Sometimes we panic. Sometimes we might not understand the question correctly. That is fine; that is what happens. But Senator Nash has been given a number of occasions to explain how we can square those two completely contradictory statements from her. On one hand, 'I have known him for a long time; I am fully aware of his connection to the company—in fact, we performed due diligence on his appointment', and on the other hand, to come in here and say, 'There is no connection whatsoever between Mr Furnival and the company.' It does not make sense. And without a thorough explanation, the only conclusion that we can come to is that the Senate was deliberately misled.
Then there is the issue of the conflict of interest. Again, just a few facts: that Mr Furnival owned the company with his wife. Let us be clear about that. He was a director of the company with his wife. He owned it and directed the company. We know that the ministerial code of conduct says very clearly—and this is not an area of ambiguity, if you have a pecuniary interest in an area in which a minister is involved, then that is a conflict of interest. This is a clear conflict of interest. Yet what we are told is that steps were undertaken to ensure that conflict of interest was dealt with—and we are provided with no evidence to confirm that those steps in fact have taken place. It is a clear conflict and, for me, it is a lesson in how you deal with a situation like this. The first thing is, you have to accept this point—that facts do not matter; that when you come into the Senate, facts simply do not matter. We are entering a parallel universe here, where black is white and white is black. When you are in a political crisis, dig in; if you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one and tell it often.
For me the biggest concern here is not the issue around the appointment of Mr Furnival. It is not the fact that there was a conflict of interest. It goes to the heart of everything that is wrong with our Australian democracy at the moment—that is, the privileged role of special interests in the Australian parliament. Earlier today, we voted against gambling reforms because of the power of the pokies industry. Everybody remembers what happened during the mining tax debate, when the mining industry came to town and we saw the previous government turn its back on what would have been an excellent reform. We are hearing now about moves afoot to wind back protections for consumers in the financial services industry. We have my colleague, Senator Whish-Wilson, pushing to try and get container deposit legislation. And who are the biggest obstacles to that? The Australian Beverages Council, one of Mr Furnival's clients. That is the issue here. That is the problem that makes meaningful reform very difficult. It has a corrosive impact on the Australian parliament. If we look at the specific portfolio area that Minister Nash is responsible for, what are the great health challenges? What are they? One is obesity. We have a country with one of the highest obesity rates anywhere in the world. What was proposed? Providing consumers with information via a star rating website that made it very clear to consumers—to individuals—that some foods that they may have thought were healthy were in fact less healthy than they thought, or the reverse. That is what this reform was about.
What really confuses me here is that on the one hand we have a conservative government that says the only way for markets to work efficiently is if we have a decent flow of information, yet here we are with a reform that provides consumers with information and we have Mr Furnival, whose lobbying firm works on behalf of the junk food industry, preventing consumers from getting access to that information. Here is the paradox for the coalition: are they going to be true to that Liberal philosophy that says consumers should get access to good information, or is their connection to big business so entrenched that they will deny people that information?
Look at the area of alcohol reform. We recently had a big national debate about the issue of alcohol fuelled violence and alcohol related harm. At the same time, we had the defunding of an alcohol and other drugs agency on the basis that the work they were doing was duplicated by other agencies—which, we learnt through Senate estimates, simply was not true. When it comes to tobacco control we have a party—and a minister who belongs to that party—continuing to take donations from the tobacco industry. How is it that a party, and a minister, who has control over tobacco policy can continue to be the only party in the Australian parliament that continues to take donations from an industry that kills people? It is another obvious conflict.
No-one here enjoys this business. A censure motion is a serious thing. And of course there is a human element to all of this. I do not know Senator Nash. I am sure she is a decent person. But this is not about whether she is a decent person. Sometimes, good people make serious mistakes. Senator Nash has made a number of serious mistakes. What needs to happen now is straightforward. The website that was taken down should immediately be reinstated. People should not be denied access to information that will improve their health. If it is not the role of government to protect the health of the Australian community, then I do not know what we are doing here. The funding for the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council should be immediately reinstated. We need to ensure that the National Party are dragged into the 21st century and that they join the Greens, the Australian Labor Party and, most recently, the Liberal Party in ruling out donations from the tobacco industry. In taking these actions, the minister can demonstrate that she does put the health of the Australian community ahead of those privileged special interests. She needs to correct the record on the statements she has made, and then she should do the dignified thing and resign as minister.