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Health body funding cut under scrutiny amid industry link revelations

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Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash’s shock decision to axe funding to a renowned alcohol and drug advisory group has come under renewed scrutiny following revelations of links between her former Chief of Staff and the food and drink industries.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said the move last November to withdraw Commonwealth funding from the 46-year-old Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia should be reviewed.

Dr Hambleton’s call came as it was revealed Senator Nash’s former Chief of Staff, Alastair Furnival, conducted the meeting at which the Council was informed of the funding cut.

Council Board President, former Liberal MP Dr Mal Washer, said that at the meeting, the only reason given by Mr Furnival for the cut was that there was not enough money “and ‘have a nice day’.”

Dr Washer told the Canberra Times that neither Mr Furnival nor Senator Nash appeared to know much about the Council, including that it operated the National Drug Sector Information Service, a repository of almost 100,000 resources on alcohol and other drugs, one of the most comprehensive such libraries in the world.

ADCA was blindsided by the Government’s decision, having received a written assurance from the Health Department in April that its funding, worth around $1.6 million a year, was secure through to mid-2015.

Following the withdrawal of its funding, the organisation put itself into voluntary administration while it assessed its on-going viability.

But there are renewed calls for the funding decision to be reviewed following revelations that, at the time the decision was made, Mr Furnival was a director of the firm Strategic Issues Management, which, according to Fairfax Media, in 2004 described itself as specialising in co-operatives in the alcohol, transport and agriculture industries.

Mr Furnival was last month forced to resign from Senator Nash’s office after it was revealed that after joining her staff he not only had retained his position as SIM director, but was also a shareholder in the lobbying firm Australian Public Affairs, which had had food giant Mondelez Australia and Australian Beverage Council among its clients.

Dr Hambleton said the Government should revisit its decision to withdraw the Council’s funding.

“When we see adverse effects and acute side-effects from a toxic product continuing to rise, we have to really question the wisdom of de-funding a body that is trying to reverse that,” he told the Canberra Times.

Council Chief Executive David Templeman said he was “literally gobsmacked” by the Government’s vetting processes.

The Council’s patron, Emeritus Professor Ian Webster told the Canberra Times that the Council had advocated a number of policies that were disliked by many in the alcohol industry.

“I do know that there are some powerful interests involved. We now have an alcohol-industrial complex at every different level promoting where each on its own is reasonable, but together does a great deal of harm to the community,” Professor Webster said.

Adrian Rollins