Thursday 11th September 2014
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Former National MP Katherine Rich is standing firm against calls for her to resign from the government-funded Health Promotion Agency board.
The call came from a group of senior health researchers who want Rich investigated over allegations in Nicky Hager's 'Dirty Politics' book and an apparent conflict of interest with her role as head of the industry lobby group, the Food & Grocery Council.
Rich, who was paid $16,000 in the June 2013 year for the health promotion role, continues to have the backing of both HPA chair Lee Mathias and FGC chair Pierre van Heerden, who say they have full confidence in her integrity.
“The FGC board has full confidence in Mrs Rich and has not reviewed her position," said van Heerden, who wouldn't respond beyond an emailed statement.
Mathias said she believed any potential conflicts of interest with Rich's dual roles had been managed in terms of the State Services Commission's guidelines. She had talked through the issue with other board members who support Rich continuing in the role.
"She's been a very strong supporter of every decision made by this agency," said Matthias, who added that she hadn't bothered to read Hager's book despite the serious nature of the allegations against one of her board members.
Rich has issued a written statement saying she has no intention of resigning from the HPA, which was set up in 2012 as a Crown entity to promote healthy lifestyles as a replacement to the former independent Alcohol Advisory Council and Health Sponsorship Council.
When Rich was first appointed concerns were raised over the potential conflict with her role at the FGC, which advocates on behalf of big business interests including alcohol manufacturers. The FGC has an annual budget of about $1.2 million, of which $197,475 went on communications and public relations in the March 2014 year, up from $119,441 a year earlier.
At the time, Prime Minister John Key said any conflicts could be managed.
Key has not responded to the letter from the health professionals, instead passing the buck to Health Minister Tony Ryall who is due to retire at the election on Sept. 20. Ryall said in a short emailed statement today that he was "confident that any conflicts are being managed appropriately, and I will be responding to the letter in due course”. He declined to answer other questions including what his confidence was based on.
Former MP Rich said she had not been involved in any campaign that had undermined the public health of Kiwis, and found the suggestion offensive. But she is refusing to front up to interviews on the allegations in Hager's book that she used the services of public relations adviser Carrick Graham to pay blogger Cameron Slater to attack the council's opponents as recently as February this year.
“I have personally been involved in many campaigns that promote the public health of Kiwis. New Zealand is a country that allows freedom of expression and these people are entitled to their views. I put my heart and soul into playing my part in the effective governance of the HPA, which successfully delivers a multitude of great programmes dealing with immunisation, rheumatic fever, sun safety, alcohol harm minimisation, and smoking cessation," she wrote.
One of those targeted by Slater was Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre. Sellman is one of the health professionals now calling for the government to review Rich's role. He said he was not surprised that an apparent conflict had emerged but was shocked there was evidence of it.
"It's a bit creepy seeing the evidence," he said.
Just Water International founder Tony Falkenstein was another said in 'Dirty Politics' to have been targeted by Slater at Rich's instigation after he was named as the New Zealand contact for Australian lawyers considering a class action against cola companies in relation to the health impact of sugary drinks.
Falkenstein said the personal attacks were nasty enough to stop him speaking out, so "they worked". He described Rich's on-going role at the HPA as a "real shocker" given her lobbyist role for food manufacturers.
The health professionals said in their letter to Key that Rich's actions represented an "unavoidable conflict of interest with the Health Promotion Agency's goal of improving the population's health". They said the actions fell far short of the standard that would be reasonably expected of someone appointed as a board member to a Crown Entity and apparently breached a couple of the requirements under the Act.
They also believed this episode illustrated the need for additional investigation and guidance development of how potential conflicts of interest are handled for Crown Entity Board members both when appointed and during their period of service,
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