Alastair Furnival’s downfall shone light on the heavy political links of Big Food lobbyists. By Mike Seccombe.

The political power of food lobbyists

Screenshot of the defunct the Health Star Rating wesbite.

Michael Moore is only too happy to give credit where it’s due.

And after Australia’s food ministers finally, decisively gave their support to a new healthy food labelling system last week, Moore, the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, was quick to acknowledge the role of one person in particular: Alastair Furnival.

“Furnival,” said Moore, “has done a huge favour for everyone involved. Except the industry he represented.”

For those who’ve forgotten the name, Furnival was the junk food industry lobbyist turned Liberal government staffer who, in his brief tenure as chief of staff to Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, intervened to order the health department to pull the plug on its new healthy food rating  website.

So it might seem odd that Michael Moore should see Furnival’s role positively, given that it’s taken five months to get the site up again.

But he means what he says. Ultimately, it was embarrassment about Furnival that pushed a reluctant industry and its agents in government to do the popular and right thing.

Thus when the relevant state and federal ministers met last week, says Moore, “No vote was taken, which indicates to me that some jurisdictions that were reluctant now realise there is a wide public expectation that this should happen.”

More importantly, some very big players in the industry, Woolworths and Sanitarium, immediately announced their intention to comply with the new system, and to do so quickly. Coles is planning to do the same, says Moore.

In due course – the food ministers have allowed the industry five years, but Moore expects it to happen much more quickly – we’ll see all foods on supermarket shelves carry a front-of-label health rating, not dissimilar to the energy star ratings we are already used to on electrical appliances, along with information about fat, sugar, fibre and salt content.

1 . Public interest sparked by Furnival

The move to a new labelling system now has a momentum  that it lacked until that day in February when the website came down. And it was not the fact that the site was removed, so much as the circumstances under which it was removed that have imparted that momentum.

“The story about the site coming down might have run for a couple of days in those couple of media outlets,” says Moore, referring to The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC, which were onto it early.

Under other circumstances, the government would probably have got away with its initial excuse that the site had gone up prematurely, by accident. Then the junk food lobby could have discreetly continued its long campaign of resistance, secure in the knowledge that the Abbott government was completely onside with its stalling tactics.

The public interest and public will – there is plenty of survey evidence showing that Australians want better guidance about the food we eat, and that we don’t trust the industry to provide it – could have been quietly ignored.

“But it was the past associations of Furnival that made it snowball,” Moore says.

Those associations were that he had been a shareholder, indeed chairman, of Australian Public Affairs, a lobbying firm whose principal was his wife, Tracey Cain. Among the consultancy’s clients were Mondelez Australia and the Australian Beverages Council.

Mondelez (a mash-up of the Latin words for “delicious world”) is the new name for part of an old tangled web of corporate entities with a long history of producing unhealthy products, harking back decades to the takeover of Kraft and General Foods in the United States by the tobacco giant Philip Morris. Mondelez owns Kraft, Cadbury, Vegemite, and various other chocolate, confectionary, biscuit and junk grocery lines.

The Beverages Council is the peak industry body representing various water bottlers, juice companies and soft drink brands, and the like, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull.

Furnival and Cain defend themselves on the basis that they had ceased acting for those clients when Furnival got the job with Minister Nash.

But it was not a good look. And it looked all the worse because Furnival was portrayed as having taken down the healthy foods site on his own initiative. He, the recent lobbyist for companies opposing the public health initiative, had rung the bureaucrats to tell them to do it. Initially they refused; it took the subsequent intervention of more senior bureaucrats and the minister before the site was pulled.

The story bubbled along for a week, with Nash repeatedly having to correct her answers to questions about Furnival’s involvement with the lobbying firm. Eventually he was forced to resign, to stem the damage to his minister and the government.

2 . Chain of authority questioned

The Furnival affair was just another example of the perpetual tension between the public interest and vested interests in politics. But it was unusual in a couple of respects other than the fact that the public interest appears to have been accidentally enhanced by the actions of a corporate lobbyist.

For one, it highlighted the tension between the official pecking order of accountability in Canberra and the unofficial pecking order of influence.

As Richard Mulgan, emeritus professor with the Crawford school of public policy at the Australian National University, neatly summarised it in an opinion piece for The Canberra Times: “No public servant is obliged to take instructions from an adviser simply on the adviser’s say-so,” he wrote.

“The support of the minister is often implicit and can be taken for granted,” Mulgan said. “But, in important cases of genuine doubt, public servants, particularly more junior ones, are fully within their rights to seek an explicit ministerial direction.”

Which is exactly what happened in this case. But the chain of events, as it slowly became apparent, posed the question: who was really calling the shots? The elected minister, the appointed staffer or the Food and Grocery Council?

The CEO of the council, Gary Dawson, conceded he had contacted Nash on the day the website went public, to express his organisation’s concern that it was “premature” to go live with the site. He denied asking that it be taken down.

3 . Political operatives turned lobbyists

McDonald’s, perhaps the most aggressive of the junk food companies, employs one of the biggest lobbying firms, Barton Deakin, whose federal director is Grahame Morris, the long-time chief of staff for John Howard. Among its 75 other clients is the brewer Carlton & United. Barton Deakin is heavy with conservative political operatives, and ex-Howard staffers in particular. Anthony Benscher and John Griffin are two more. Then there is the former New South Wales Liberal party leader Peter Collins, former Joe Hockey chief of staff Matt Hingerty, long-time senior Peter Costello adviser David Alexander, and several others. Space does not permit their full resumes; suffice to say the firm’s staff covers all Liberal factions, most states and, collectively, scores of party positions, elected and otherwise.

Barton Deakin is unusual in the world of lobbyists, in that it is so obviously aligned with one side of politics. Most have a mix of Labor and Liberal affiliated operatives.

More typical is the Endeavour Consulting Group, which represents another of the really big names in junk: Coca-Cola.

The lobbyists’ principal, Jeff Townsend, was senior private secretary to Bob Hawke, and later chief of staff to Labor trade minister John Dawkins, before moving into senior positions in the ACT bureaucracy. Two other partners, Mark Baker and Paul Chamerlin, worked respectively for John Howard and former deputy prime minister John Anderson. That’s all the major parties covered: Labor, Liberal and National.

Kellogg’s, Mars, Nestlé and the big alcohol companies all have their politically connected lobbyists. We won’t name them all – there are too many.

And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Australia’s inadequate system for tracking lobbying activity only requires third-party lobbyists – that is, those not on staff with the companies they lobby for – to be registered.

Many big companies and peak industry bodies don’t feel the need to employ outside lobbying firms. It’s so much more discreet to do it in-house.

The Food and Grocery Council (AFCG) is a case in point. It has no external lobbyist. But it has CEO Gary Dawson, a former press gallery journo who went over to government.

As the council’s website boasts: “Gary has worked at the highest levels of government, spending five years as a senior adviser to prime minister John Howard, covering both media and policy, and four years as an adviser to ACT chief minister Kate Carnell.”

Kate Carnell preceded Dawson as CEO at the AFGC, and has now gone on to become chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

A clear picture is forming. Politics, particularly conservative politics, is a big revolving door. And the door revolves faster all the time.

That is not to say all lobbying is bad. Michael Moore, for example, fits the description of a lobbyist. He is a former ACT politician, although never a representative of a major party. And – just to show what a small world it is – he was once appointed ACT health minister by Carnell.

The difference is, of course, he is not working for corporate interests. And while he claims a win on this one, there should be no doubt the public health advocates like him are fighting an uphill battle. Not just in Australia, either, but all around an increasingly obese world. The big money is all on the other side.

4 . Echoes of Big Tobacco

Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, which also pushed hard for the food star rating scheme, compares the food industry to big tobacco.

“I think there are a lot of similarities,” she says.

Martin rattles off a few examples: the way the junk food and soft drink industries promote ineffectual self-regulation regimes, claiming not to target vulnerable groups such as children, as a means of staving off mandatory regulation by government; the way they market supposedly healthier versions of their products – low-fat as the new low-tar; the way they buy influence through allegedly socially responsible sponsorships, particularly of sporting bodies.

Australian Medical Association vice-president Professor Geoffrey Dobb, the AMA representative on the implementation committee for the new star rating scheme, takes up the last point.

“There’s a halo effect they seek to get from doing what might be seen as good things, such as Ronald McDonald House,” Dobb says. “Sure, it does provide benefits to the families of kids with cancer, but they are using it in a very cynical way. For the majority of people exposed to its products, it’s actually a harm, not a good.”

“Look at some of the things they’re engaged in, such as the sponsorship of children’s sport,” Dobb continues, “so children come to associate success with going to Hungry Jacks or McDonald’s or KFC or whoever, depending on the sport they’re playing. It’s very hard to get a comprehensive picture of all the sponsorships they’re engaged in, which gives the impression they’re not very proud of some of it.”

But we do have some idea.

Dr Bridget Kelly, senior lecturer in public health at the University of Wollongong, points to a recent survey of 100 kids’ sports clubs done by a team at the university, which sought to quantify the exposure of children to food and drink company advertising through sponsorships.

“Depending on the activity they were exposed to, between one and four hours every week,” she says. “Kids see signage for sponsors on their uniforms, on the equipment, in the canteen, in the newsletters. There is lots of branding in the clubs. The biggest cumulative exposure was for rugby league. About 75 per cent of junior league teams had food and drink sponsors. Across NSW it totalled 64,000 hours’ exposure every week, just for that sport.”

Kelly notes evidence of the junk food and drink companies’ sensitivity to exposure of their activities. After Coke was pinged in the media for its sponsorship of Little Athletics, she says, “they changed the logo on the Little Athletics site from Coca-Cola to Mount Franklin, which is another of their brands.”

Jane Martin points to another example. Coca-Cola is moving into the sponsorship of cycling in a big way. Just last week 300 high school students in the Illawarra got a new bicycle, courtesy of Coke, as part of a program to increase physical activity.

It may have the desired effect for those kids. But the bigger agenda, she says, is to suggest that the industry is acting responsibly, to stave off those who would further regulate its marketing practices.

Richard Di Natale, the health spokesman for the Greens, is one of those. His attempts to introduce legislation into the federal parliament that would severely restrict advertising to children of what he calls the “triad of booze, gambling and junk food” have languished for want of support from the major parties.

“We’re looking at something we’ve not seen before,” Di Natale says. “A generation of kids whose health outcomes are worse than their parents.”

But the government is apparently far more concerned with its “budget emergency” than with a pending health emergency. And so, as Martin sadly points out, they’ve just cut some $300 million from preventive health programs.

In the meantime, the lobbying firms’ and the junk food sector’s profits grow fat. Just like our kids.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 5, 2014 as "Unhealthy relationships".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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