Who is Alastair Furnival, the chief of staff of Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, whose part-ownership of a food industry lobbying firm has gotten his boss into so much trouble?

Long-time readers may recall Furnival and his firm Australian Public Affairs from 2008. APA isn’t just any old lobbying outfit, it is closely aligned with the Liberal National Party in Queensland and was even hired by the newly formed party in 2008 to vet candidates for Labor-held seats.

Furnival was chairman of the company back then and was still chairman until he took up his position with Nash, having been carefully vetted by Tony Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, who apparently didn’t twig that his continuing connection to the firm might cause potential difficulties.

But Furnival (abandoned Twitter account: @AusConservative) is no stranger to the health portfolio, which might have increased his appeal to the Abbott brains trust that spent so long running the ruler over ministerial staff after the election. He was chief of staff to Queensland Liberal Santo Santoro in the latter’s mercifully brief stint as John Howard’s minister for ageing in 2007, which was ended after Santoro was revealed to have been less than forthcoming about his shareholdings, not merely to voters but to Howard, which was a hanging offence.

Furnival is a bright spark: he edited the short-lived Conservative journal and pens articles name-checking Foucault and lamenting reductionism in physics. But he apparently failed to learn the lesson of Santoro’s fate: that undisclosed shareholdings can be fatal, especially when they come as a surprise to prime ministers.

The PMO was duly embroiled in the scandal over the axing of a food health website this week, with Nash admitting in Parliament that she had had “internal discussions” with the PMO before returning to Parliament on Tuesday night to admit that Furnival still partly owned APA. Indeed, it’s been less than a year since Furnival was doing duty as Kraft-Cadbury spokesman.

Regardless of the shareholding issue, it’s hardly a good look that Furnival, just a few months before demanding a healthy food site loathed by big food companies be taken down, was spruiking the corporate line for one of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers. Did he tell Credlin and Nash about that?

So far, though, Furnival remains in place. The only person to suffer as a consequence of the axing of the healthy food star ratings website, as Fairfax’s Amy Corderoy revealed this week, is the Department of Health public servant in charge of it, Kathy Dennis, who declined Furnival’s demand that the site be taken down. She’s had responsibility for the project taken off her.

Jane “children overboard” Halton, who is still secretary of Health (and waiting for Ian Watt to move on from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet), knows the value of close co-operation with governments, even when something unusual has occurred. Indeed, particularly when something unusual has occurred.

Update: Fiona Nash issued a statement on the afternoon of Friday 14 February advising that she had accepted Furnival’s resignation “with regret”.

Peter Fray

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