Kate Carnell has worn many hats during her controversial career: pharmacist, ACT chief minister, NRMA director and, now, spruiker for Australia’s biggest manufacturing industry, the food and grocery sector.
She’s tiny in stature but as tough as teak — which is just as well. There’s a conga line of critics who accuse her of rent-seeking, peddling misinformation and putting the interests of corporate giants like Coke and Nestle above our kids’ health.
“Kate is amazing at building networks, at getting to know people, at remembering names,” says Public Health Association CEO Michael Moore, who served as health minister in Carnell’s ACT government for three years. “She’s very good at what she does, she will work and deliver for those who are paying her … My colleagues and I think they [the AFGC] have too much influence over government and too much access to government.”
One of Carnell’s biggest successes has been stymieing a push by obesity experts for the government to regulate junk food advertising.
She got on the front foot back in 2009 by launching the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative — a voluntary code of conduct that has been praised by Health Minister Nicola Roxon. Companies who sign up to the agreement commit to not advertising food and drink products to children under 12 unless they promote a healthy diet or lifestyle.
A 2010 University of Sydney study found that, while participating companies had cut back on junk food advertising, children were still being exposed to the same amount of TV ads for unhealthy food as they had been before the code was introduced.
Nevertheless, the voluntary code has helped the issue go away at a policy level. Labor and the Coalition joined forces in March to defeat a Greens bill that would have banned television advertising of high fat, sugar and salt foods to children.
“Kate Carnell has been extremely effective in keeping good public policy for food off the agenda,” says Boyd Swinburn, director of Deakin University’s World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention. “She doesn’t have a hard time opening doors in Canberra. She’s close and friendly with a number of top politicians.”
Despite the howls from public health advocates, Carnell denies that there’s anything untoward about the work she does.
“My job is to represent my members to the best of my ability,” she tells The Power Index. “I wouldn’t do the job if I wasn’t passionate about the industry.
“What would happen if national associations didn’t do what we do? How would government know what industry is thinking?”
Carnell, who grew up in Brisbane, moved to Canberra in the early 1980s and opened up a pharmacy at Red Hill. After serving in senior positions at the Australian Pharmacy Guild, one of the country’s most successful lobby groups, she joined the ACT Liberal Party in 1991. Four years later, she was elected ACT Chief Minister, a remarkable result given Canberra’s reputation as a Labor town.
Media reports from the time describe her (and quote her describing herself) as “in your face”, a “high-flyer with a flair for self-promotion” and a “can do leader”. She was electorally popular, but is perhaps best remembered for the series of scandals that occurred under her watch. She resigned in 2000 with a no-confidence motion looming over the blowout in costs of the Bruce Stadium development.