“Senator Griff clearly smelled a rat regarding the departure of the board chair, Robyn Kruk, and CEO Mark Booth, shortly after the decision was taken on graphic pregnancy warning labels,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.
SA senator Stirling Griff has exposed a “cosy relationship between governments and their industry mates” which he described as “a cancer on our democracy”.
In a series of ministerial letters related to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the relationships between the federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and representatives of the alcohol industry were brought out of the shadows and into the spotlight of Senate scrutiny.
Sadly, the catalyst was about pregnancy warning labels on alcohol. The outcome ought to be a wake-up call to all ministers, senators and members of parliament across Australia.
For years the dangers to a foetus from smoking have been well known and warning labels on cigarette packets have made the issue clear. The damage to a foetus and the long-term impact on children, where pregnant mothers are using alcohol, is now well defined in scientific literature. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is just one example of long-term impacts of children born to mothers who have used excessive alcohol in pregnancy.
The majority of well-educated, middle-class women are aware and protect their pregnancies. However, there are still far too many women who are vulnerable and do not understand the risks. A graphic label reminder plays an important part in conveying this message to the community.
After years of investigation, FSANZ put the graphic-warning label approach to the Food Ministers’ Forum. This forum includes ministers from all Australian jurisdictions and NZ. The proposal passed with the support of NZ, the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, WA, Tasmania and the NT. An attempt by the federal government to defeat the proposal was only supported by NSW and SA.
The letters reveal that this was an affront to Mr Littleproud and his alcohol-industry mates. The decision provided motivation for him to write to a series of his alcohol-industry colleagues seeking support for a review of the legislation in order to strip FSANZ of its powers.
In exposing the alcohol-industry letters, Senator Griff argued: “This smells of interference” and “we need transparency to hold politicians and lobbyists to account.”
Amongst the letters was joint correspondence from Alcohol Beverages Australia, the Australian Beverages Council, the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the National Farmers’ Federation expressly calling for FSANZ to be stripped of its powers. It called for the board to be stacked with business representatives; and responsibility for food regulation be taken away from the Department of Health and moved to Mr Littleproud’s Agriculture portfolio.
What is really exasperating is that the letter was generated over warnings designed to protect pregnant women and their children!
On the issue of pregnancy warning labels, Minister Littleproud wrote: “I am disappointed with the decision of the forum,” and added that the pregnancy warning label outcome “has highlighted to me that more needs to be done to ensure the views of industry are considered through the policy development process”.
Senator Griff told the Senate that the position of the Minister for Agriculture “reflected all of the alcohol industry’s concerns and none of the public health concerns”.
This approach is in marked contrast to his ministerial colleague, Health Minister Greg Hunt. The federal Department of Health, according to Senator Griff, was seeking to “expand the scope, authority and responsibilities of FSANZ” as it had “served Australia’s interests well”.
Senator Griff clearly smelled a rat regarding the departure of both the board chair, Robyn Kruk, and CEO Mark Booth, shortly after the decision was taken on graphic pregnancy warning labels.
He called for a Senate inquiry “to determine if the Minister for Agriculture removed two statutory officers at the behest of the alcohol industry” and “to determine if he crossed the line”.
The Senator added: “And to determine if there should be consequences for such conduct” before putting the question: “How long until the government announces that FSANZ will be stripped of its powers and the alcohol industry will have achieved everything it wanted?”
Thanks to people such as Stirling Griff, the Senate plays a key role in transparency. However, as pointed out in this column last week, and so strongly resisted by the government, is the need for a strong Independent Commission Against Corruption with the teeth to pursue this sort of issue.
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