Health Minister Peter Dutton defends embattled colleague Fiona Nash
Deputy Leader of The Nationals Senator Fiona Nash at question time on Wednesday. Photo: Alex EllinghausenHealth Minister Peter Dutton has defended his embattled colleague Fiona Nash, describing her as “effective” and “decent” and accusing state Labor ministers of leaking against her.
Senator Nash, the Assistant Minister for Health, is under pressure to resign from the ministry over her handling of the interests of her former chief of staff, Alastair Furnival.
Mr Furnival resigned on Friday, denying he had acted improperly but citing a “smear campaign” over his role in taking down a healthy food rating website, which he said was a distraction from the government’s work in health.
Fairfax Media revealed on Tuesday that Mr Furnival also played a key role in stripping Australia’s peak drug and alcohol body of its funding.
He and his wife Tracey Cain own a company that performed work for the alcohol industry as recently as 2012 and has also lobbied for the Australian Beverages Council, Cadbury, Oreo and Kraft peanut butter.
On Wednesday, Greens health spokesman Richard Di Natale called for Senator Nash to step aside, accusing her of misleading the Senate and compromising efforts to tackle obesity and alcohol abuse. He also said she was conflicted on tobacco policy because her party – the Nationals – continue to accept donations from cigarette makers.
“It just demonstrates that we have a Minister who has been prepared to put the interests of big business ahead of protecting ordinary people,” Senator Di Natale said.
Senator Di Natale called for the healthy food ratings website to be immediately reinstated, and the funding for the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia to be immediately restored.
Interviewed on ABC TV on Wednesday night, Mr Dutton defended Senator Nash, saying she was right to demand the website be taken down because the food labelling system it related to had not yet started.
“If the system hasn’t started, I don’t see an argument for the website being up in place,” Mr Dutton said.
When it was put to him that the other parties to the food labelling system, state and territory governments, had agreed for the website to be published, Mr Dutton accused Labor jurisdictions of leaking against his colleague.
“You’ve got Labor Premiers sitting around the table in South Australia and Tasmania, two of the worst-performing health systems in the country – I don’t place much credibility on what might have been leaked by Labor Ministers out of that meeting,” he said.
“The credibility I place in this debate is with Senator Nash and I think she has done the right thing here… we aren’t going to be cajoled or bullied by people like South Australia or Tasmania or indeed the ACT.
“I find Fiona Nash not only to be an effective Minister but to be a very decent person.”
Mr Dutton said he knew about Mr Furnival’s background, but appropriate declarations were made.
He said the government “obviously has a number of people who are advising us in these particular areas”.
Labor’s health spokeswoman Catherine King has accused Senator Nash of breaching ministerial standards, but has stopped short of calling for her resignation, saying it was up to the Prime Minister to take action.
“It is not satisfactory for the Prime Minister to say nothing on this matter indefinitely,” Ms King said on Tuesday.
Labor and the Greens are expected to pursue Senator Nash in Senate estimates hearings next week.
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