Lately I’ve been involved in a sort of farcical standoff with the Health Minister, who seems to be under the illusion that I have no right to ask questions about conflicts involving Health Promotion Agency Board member Katherine Rich, and that he in turn has no responsibily to dignify my questions with a proper answer.
Mrs Rich is also the head of the Food and Grocery Council, on whose behalf she has actively lobbied against tighter controls on the junkfood, tobacco and alcoholic industries – industries that are very often the target of the HPAs health promotion activities.
This apparent conflict has caused concern among health researchers for years, all the more so when I discovered recently that she’d never recused herself from a meeting of the HPA in which decisions about junk food, alcohol or tobacco were made.
So I asked Dr Coleman a series of questions about Mrs Rich’s role and the management, or not, of her conflicts of interest at the HPA.
His response has been very much in the vain of John Key’s “yes-we-break-the-laws-around-the-OIA-when-it-suits-us” brand of disrespect for the democratic process.
Here’s just a taste:
After telling me in the House that he wasn’t at all concerned about Mrs Rich’s management of her interests because he’d asked officials to go through the HPA minutes and they were satisfied there was nothing amiss, I asked Dr Coleman a follow up written question:
On what date did Ministry officials communicate to the Minister that they had concluded that in relation to the Health Promotion Agency board minutes “there’s nothing inappropriate in the conduct of any board member in the context of the Crown Entities Act 2004” ?
Answer: It was communicated to my office on 30 October 2014.
Ok, great, so what was that advice? This calls for two more questions:
What was the title or titles, format or formats and date of all advice given by Ministry officials to the Minister that said that there was no conflict of interest at the meetings of the Health Promotion Agency board?
What was the full content of all advice given by Ministry officials to the Minister that said that there was no conflict of interest at the meetings of the Health Promotion Agency board?
Answer: The advice was conveyed orally by Ministry officials to my office.
Hmm , not so helpful
Next question (remember, I have to wait a week for each answer)
What in the Health Promotion Agency Board minutes did officials review that led Ministry officials to conclude “there’s nothing inappropriate in the conduct of any board member in the context of the Crown Entities Act 2004” ?
Answer: The content.
I’d say that was pretty rude. But then I received an OIA showing that there was, in fact, written advice to the Minister which he hadn’t previously disclosed; an email, from Health Officials. But because Coleman says this was advice in preparation for an oral question, he didn’t need to tell me about it.
At which point Dr Coleman’s answers became a total farce:
Is the Ministry of Health responsible for determining whether Health Promotion Agency board members have acted appropriately at Health Promotion Agency meetings regarding conflicts of interest, or is that the responsibility of another agency or person, and if so, who does the Minister hold accountable?
I don’t know what Dr Coleman is hiding, or what game he thinks he’s playing, but it’s my job to ask him questions and the ones I’ve put to him concern public health and they are serious.
Rules around conflicts of interests and Government appointees on boards exist precisely to protect our institutions from the risk that those in control of the purse strings might think they’re somehow unaccountable, or untouchable. Dr Coleman would do well to start reflecting on that because I have a few more questions for him yet.