A recent Stuff article made me reflect on the treatment of scientists in New Zealand. It is a measure of the strange state that our world is in that merchant bankers hold power and scientists, who must rank as the ultimate truth seekers, are undermined and attacked.
The story reported on an article published by Dr Boyd Swinburn. As reported on Stuff:
Swinburn, a Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland, is the most-recent expert to join criticism of what author Nicky Hager described in his Dirty Politics book as “an apparent systemic approach being used by the tobacco, alcohol and processed food industries in New Zealand to attack prominent public-health advocates”.
In the article, co-authored with Australian professor Michael Moore, Swinburn said: “A blanket of suppression is insidiously descending on the voices for public health.”
First, there were the interests of transnational corporations, and then there was the Government, which wanted to control public health information and messaging, Swinburn said.
While working in Australia’s Deakin University, Swinburn said he experienced efforts to have reports cancelled or watered down and funding pulled, and he said that had started happening in New Zealand.
“There needs to be voices that are based in science standing up to that and speaking on behalf of the public,” he said.
“There are plenty of voices on behalf of the commercial interest. But the number of voices on behalf of the public are getting fewer and weaker.”
As an example he mentioned Tony Ryall ignoring concerns raised by health groups about potential conflicts of interest when he appointed former National MP Katherine Rich to the Health Promotion Agency. Rich is the chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council whose roles include lobbying for the alcohol, tobacco and grocery-food industries.
I must admit having a soft spot for Rich. She was National’s spokesperson on welfare at the time of Don Brash’s Orewa speech and refused to give full support to his tough of beneficiaries policies. She was demoted for her efforts. Such principled behaviour by a National Politician is a rare thing.
But her current role presents to my view a clear conflict of interest. Her work for the FGC is to represent commercial interests involved in the sale of food and alcohol. The function of the Health Promotion Agency is set out in its enabling legislation, and includes a requirement that it leads and supports activities that promote health and wellbeing and encouraging healthy lifestyles and prevents disease, illness, and injury. It has a specific alcohol related function of giving advice and making recommendations to government, government agencies and others on the sale, supply, consumption, misuse, and harm of alcohol so far as those matters relate to the HPA’s general functions.
Maybe there is some clever legal opinion that says something different but I cannot see how Rich can represent corporate interests and our interests at the same time. But section 62(2)(d) of the Crown Entities Act 2004 says that someone has a conflict in a matter if they may be directly or indirectly interested in the matter. The FGC must be interested in the activities of the HPA. The way I see it nothing could be clearer.
Anyone so interested must disclose it. And they are not meant to vote or even take part in the discussion concerning any matter they have an interest in.
It appears from questions asked by Kevin Hague in Parliament this week that no disclosure by Rich has been made.
Jonathan Coleman, who must rank up with Chris Finlayson as one of the most obnoxious of tories was asked about these clear conflicts by the Green’s Kevin Hague in the house.
It appears that Coleman had asked the Ministry of Health to review the HPA’s minutes to see if Rich had declared a conflict. Coleman was upset because Hague was asking so many questions about the subject. I thought that this is precisely what an opposition Member of Parliament should be doing.
The exchange included the following:
Kevin Hague: Can he confirm that Katherine Rich, acting in her role on the board of the Health Promotion Agency, has never declared a conflict of interest with any specific agenda item, or withdrawn from discussion or participation on any agenda item?
Hon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN: This is going to get very tedious. We have covered this in the previous 59 questions, but the answer is still no.
Kevin Hague: What actions will he take, given that the Health Promotion Agency minutes and Katherine Rich’s own statements show that she has never recused herself from a meeting or a discussion of the Health Promotion Agency board, in which she has an interest, which she is obliged to do under section 66(a) of the Crown Entities Act 2004?
Hon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN: I will take exactly the same actions I have outlined in the previous 59 answers.
Kevin Hague: How does the Minister reconcile the answer he has just given the House, and his continued acceptance of Ms Rich taking part in Health Promotion Agency board discussions on board agenda items about tobacco and alcohol, with section 66(a) of the Crown Entities Act, which says: “A member who is interested in a matter relating to a statutory entity—(a) must not vote or take part in any discussion or decision of the board or … otherwise participate in any activity of the entity that relates to the matter;”?
Hon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN: Because under section 67(1) of the Crown Entities Act, it states: “The board must notify the responsible Minister of a failure to comply with section 63 or section 66, and of the acts affected, as soon as practicable after becoming aware of the failure.”, and I have had no such notification.
So if a board fails to do its job and notify a failure then all is ok?
Rich is mentioned in Dirty Politics. One of the many allegations was that Tony Falkenstein, an anti obesity campaigner, was targeted by the Whaleoil blog was attacked at the request of Rich.
In Dirty Politics, Hager claimed Mr Falkenstein was written about after his name appeared on an advertisement seeking out people with Type 2 Diabetes. The advertisement, which sought people for a possible Australian class action against soft drink companies, was sent by Mrs Rich to Mr Graham, and then to Slater for his website, he claimed.
Mr Hager claimed emails showed website posts attacking Mr Falkenstein included the line “3 hits smashing him good and proper” with each described as a “KR hit”.
Mr Hager claimed another email had Mr Graham telling Slater: “Coke keeps sending stuff to KR expecting her to do something (where we come in). Hit pending.” Mr Hager claimed at least one post was also written on Fonterra’s behalf, again through the Food and Grocery Council. A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola said it would take “a bit of time” to respond to the allegations and offered no further comment. A Fonterra spokesman said “we have never, directly or indirectly, requested or paid for posts on the Whale Oil blog”.
The repercussions are important. Corporate attacks on scientists can never be in the public interest. You just have to think about climate change to provide an example. The world should have as its first priority the finding of solutions to this most threatening of developments. Yet commercial interests seem to be uppermost in what needs to be achieved, not what is in the best interests of the planet.