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Abbott tries to brazen out conflict of interest quagmire

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has thrown his unequivocal support behind embattled Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash despite confusing and contradictory statements regarding the handling of an apparent conflict of interest involving departed senior staffer Alastair Furnival.

Mr Abbott repeatedly told Parliament last week that Senator Nash was doing “a fine job…and I back her to the hilt”.

But revelations that Senator Nash was aware for months that Mr Furnival held a stake in a lobbying firm with links to a major food manufacturer, and yet declared to the Senate on 11 February that he had “no connection whatsoever” with Australian Public Affairs (only to return to the chamber hours later and admit he was a shareholder in the company), have fuelled attacks on the Minister and intensified scrutiny of potential links between the Government and the food and alcohol industries.

The Opposition has mounted a concerted attack on the Government and Senator Nash after Mr Furnival was forced to resign amid accusations of a conflict of interest over the decision to direct the Health Department to take down the Food Health Star Rating website.

At the time, Mr Furnival was a shareholder and director of a lobbying firm that had had a major food manufacturer, Mondelez, among its clients.

It has subsequently been revealed that Senator Nash directed the website be taken down after a major food industry group had contacted her office earlier in the day to voice its concerns about the initiative.  

During a Senate Estimates hearing last week, Senator Nash said she had known Mr Furnival for a decade, and had been aware of his involvement with Australian Public Affairs and the food industry.

She told the hearing Mr Furnival had agreed to divest himself of his APA shareholding and resign as a director when he joined her staff, but was still in the process of divestiture five months later.

The Senator told the hearing she was “completely aware” that Mr Furnival was still a shareholder and director of APA when she told the Senate he had no connection with the firm.

Appearing to implicate the Prime Minister’s Office in the saga, the Minister told the Senate on 13 February that “all information around my chief of staff was given to the Prime Minister’s Office, in accordance with appropriate timing”.

At the time of Mr Furnival’s resignation, Mr Abbott gave as the reason that he had been “dilatory” in divesting himself of APA shares, but last week shifted his ground, telling Parliament that Mr Furnival had resigned to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.

“In order to prevent any perception of potential conflict of interest, the staffer in question resigned,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Senator Nash has given no clear reason for her chief of staff’s departure.

In Parliament last week, the Prime Minister attempted to play down the saga, seeking to dismiss it as “not so much a storm in a tea cup; it is not even a zephyr in a thimble; it is nothing, because the conflict-of-interest rules have been observed”.

He added that Senator Nash was “doing a fine job. Every single decision that has been made by her in that portfolio is eminently defensible and I back her to the hilt”.

But Mr Abbott risks being drawn more directly into the affair, with questions being raised about the circumstances surrounding his pledge last August to give chocolate maker Cadbury $16 million to develop visitor facilities at its Hobart factory.

Earlier in the year, Mr Furnival had been lobbying the Tasmanian Government on behalf of Cadbury, and sat near Mr Abbott when the Liberal leader visited the factory last year to announce his pledge.

Adrian Rollins