Labor Senator for South Australia


Shadow Minister for Health

Member for Ballarat


6 March 2014




PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Today the Australian Senate censured Senator Fiona Nash. This is the most serious charge that the Senate Chamber can bring against a Minister, a censure, and the censure motion was passed.

We did not move this motion lightly. We took this seriously. We have given this Minister ample opportunity to explain herself to the Australian people, to explain herself to the Australian Parliament and through the chamber to the Australian people.

It does say something about the contempt that the Abbott Government holds the Parliament with, and through them the Australian people, that this Minister did not even bother to defend herself on the censure motion. I can’t recall a time when a Minister facing these sorts of charges would decline to defend herself on a censure motion.

As I said, this is the most serious resolution that a Chamber of this Parliament can move against a Minister and today this is what the Australian Senate has said about the Assistant Minister for Health.

I also want to say something about the Prime Minister. As I said in the Chamber today, we should not have had to move this motion. The Senate should not have had to debate and resolve a censure against the Assistant Minister for Health because the Prime Minister should have acted.

He should have acted to ensure that the statement of ministerial standards that are his, that are his responsibility, were upheld in relation to Senator Fiona Nash. He failed to do so and that is one of the reasons why we saw the chamber today, by majority censure the Minister. As I said a very serious charge, a very serious resolution, but one that the Senate felt it had to take in the face of this Minister’s actions.

CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thank you. I really want to go to what’s at the heart of this matter. At the heart of this matter is a conflict of interest that has sat within the Assistant Minister for Health’s office and that conflict of interest has led to an infected policy decision. A policy decision that actually matters to Australian consumers, people buying groceries in their supermarkets, wanting to have information about the food they are feeding their children.

Two years of work were undertaken. As a former Parliamentary Secretary for Health I pulled together public health officials, industry. They said it could not be done. Together they have developed a health star rating system to provide Australian consumers with more information about their food.

The Assistant Minister for Health, with a conflict of interest at the heart of her office, has intervened personally to ensure that this website does not see the light of day. Now why is that the case? That is why Labor has been pursuing this matter with such vigour and that the Senate today has censured this Minister.

What we have seen today, frankly, is a great disappointment to the Australian public. A health star rating system, a very important system that will provide information to the Australian public about the foods that they are choosing to eat and we cannot actually have that system up.

The Minister has seriously breached the Ministerial standards. She has continued to mislead the Senate, she has failed to produce documents, failed to explain herself and she should resign.

WONG: Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: So what impact does this censure motion have? Does it actually have any consequences for Senator Nash?

WONG: First, I want to repeat again, a censure against a Minister is the most serious action the Senate can take against a Minister, it is the most serious action . But ultimately this is a question for the Prime Minister. What happens next is a question for the Prime Minister. We have made it clear, the Senate has made it clear, she has been censured, she should resign. Ultimately that’s a question for Tony Abbott.

JOURNALIST: But the Prime Minister said it again today that she’s done nothing wrong.

WONG: The Prime Minister is wrong and I think the public record demonstrates that is simply untrue. This Minister has repeatedly misled the Senate; she has not complied with orders to produce documents which are in the public interest. Let’s remember the letter that we asked her to table today. It’s not just any letter, it’s the letter that she says demonstrates that she has, as a Minister, ensured the standards are upheld and she’s refused to provide that.

JOURNALIST: Mr Furnival has resigned, if the conflict was there it no longer exists, isn’t it time to let this matter rest?

WONG: No, it’s time for Senator Nash to stop misleading the Parliament; it’s time for the Prime Minister to start upholding his ministerial standards.

KING: And I would add it’s time for the website that provides information to the Australian public to be reinstated immediately.

JOURNALIST: But that website was a Labor idea, isn’t it fair enough for the Government to change its mind about this and to not proceed with this idea?

KING: It was an idea developed by State and Territory and Commonwealth Ministers responsible for food regulation, many of which are not Labor governments at all. It was a State, Territory and Commonwealth star rating system endorsed by all of them.

JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, if we find a similar conflict of interest in the office of one of the shadow Ministers would you expect Bill Shorten to order their immediate resignation.

WONG: That sounds like the sort of defence –

JOURNALIST: It’s not a defence it’s a question.

WONG: Yes and I am answering your question. That sounds like the sort of defence we saw in the Senate today because I have to say, what you did see in the debate for those of you who might have had the opportunity to listen to some of the debate was what I would suggest was a very detailed laying out of the argument for censure by the Opposition. What have we had from the Government? We had basically flinging mud. We didn’t see any credible defence of this Minister from the Government, all we saw was them attempting to fling mud.

Now if they have accusations to make, if they say things need to be resolved, let them put them on the public record in the chamber. We have been asking this Minister questions for weeks now. We have given her ample opportunity to come forward and provide a comprehensive explanation. As I described in the chamber, she has misled not just on one occasion but on a number of occasions and she has been given the opportunity by the Opposition, because we do take this seriously, of correcting the record. She has failed to do so.

JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, in relation to the Qantas inquiry, what do you hope to get out of it and are you just trying to embarrass the Government?

WONG: Well to be honest I have been involved in this debate so I might leave that to Mr Albanese.

JOURNALIST: So you don’t have anything to say about Qantas at all?

WONG: No, I am just making the point that I understand there were negotiations about an inquiry, and an inquiry has been resolved, but I am not across the final terms of reference on that.

JOURNALIST: But with respect you didn’t answer my question which was if there was a conflict of interest in the office of a shadow Minister would you expect Bill Shorten to make them resign as you are calling for the Prime Minister to do?

WONG: I believe that it is important in our system of government for Ministers and Parliamentarians to uphold appropriate standards. Now we have laid out for you, not in a hypothetical case, very clear evidence of what this Minister has done wrong, we have given her the opportunity to deal with it, she has refused to do so, and that is why she has been censured by the Senate and that is why we are saying she should resign.

JOURNALIST: Just in regards to another issue about the fire in Morwell, how concerned are you as a shadow Minister and as a Victorian MP about how that has been handled?

KING: Well certainly I think it is important that the Victorian inquiry into what has occurred there is undertaken. I think it is very important that that be allowed to be the case and I think it is very important that people take the advice of the Victorian chief health officer in this matter.

JOURNALIST: How about the way that the mine’s management has dealt with this particular issue?

KING: Well certainly it is not a matter that I would comment on but certainly I think that it is important for the inquiry to be allowed to be undertaken.

JOURNALIST: Is that because the chief executive might be someone –

KING: I understand what you are going to, absolutely I understand what you are going to, but I think it is absolutely important, absolutely important that the inquiry be allowed to be undertaken.

JOURNALIST: So you don’t think that is a conflict of interest?

KING: I will leave it there, thank you.