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Kevin Hague speaks in the General Debate on Katherine Rich's conflicts in and undermining of public health

Kevin Hague MP
Kevin Hague MP
kevin [dot] hague [at] parliament [dot] govt [dot] nz (Email)
Tag: Health
Managing conflicts of interest is not, as the Minister of Health would have us believe, a trivial matter. It goes beyond an ethical duty; it is a legal duty.
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At last. Health promotion is the discipline of improving health by addressing not only the individual factors that drive illness but also the risk environments that drive illness. Health promotion involves going beyond education and social marketing and trying to address and change those environments. Health promotion funding over the past 6 years has more than halved. That is one of the reasons why we supported the creation of the Health Promotion Agency. We felt it could make a difference.

But our eyebrows were certainly raised—and those of many health promoters were raised—by the appointment of Katherine Rich to the board of the Health Promotion Agency. That is because Mrs Rich appears to have a pretty deep conflict of interest and it was very hard to see how that was going to be managed. The main causes of preventable illness and death in this country are tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy food and drink. Mrs Rich's day job is in fact to maximise the consumption of and profit from those very products, which conflicts with the role that she would have as a member of the Health Promotion Agency board to minimise the consumption of and harm from those products. It is a fundamental conflict of interest. It was hard to see how she was going to be able to manage it.

Managing conflicts of interest is not, as the Minister of Health would have us believe, a trivial matter. It goes beyond an ethical duty; it is a legal duty. The Crown Entities Act sets out specific legal duties that members of the Health Promotion Agency board have got, and there are three levels. The first is to complete and maintain a register of interests—professional interests, personal interests; a general register. The second level is that when a potential conflict of interest arises in relation to a specific agenda item that is being considered by the board, the member of the board must declare that potential conflict of interest. The third level is that in relation to that matter—in relation to that potential conflict—the member must withdraw from discussion and decision making in relation to that matter. I have to say that Katherine Rich has been very diligent in her completion of that first duty. She has maintained a register of interests but she has completely failed in both of those other duties. She has never ever—not even once—declared a conflict of interest with any item being considered by the Health Promotion Agency board, and that is despite every single meeting that she has attended including discussion of at least one of, and usually more, alcohol, tobacco, or food and drink strategy by the Health Promotion Agency. She has failed in that legal duty. She has never ever—not even once—withdrawn from any discussion of or decision making in relation to any matter being considered by the board. She has failed absolutely to meet her ethical and legal obligations. That is not just some technical or theoretical duty that she has slipped up on; it is a fundamental thing. So, for example, the Health Promotion Agency has submitted in favour of the Smoke-free Environments (Tobacco Plain Packaging) Amendment Bill. Katherine Rich submitted against it.

Over the past several weeks, questions in this House have been exploring the very serious allegations made against Mrs Rich in Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics —that she engaged Carrick Graham to commission and write blog posts for the Whale Oil blog, attacking public health experts. I do not know whether that allegation is correct or not. If it is not, I would be very interested to know what the initials "KR" stand for. That is a very serious allegation, and what we have heard from Minister Coleman today, and in the House over the past several weeks, is that he has not even bothered to ask Katherine Rich whether the allegations are true. She has not denied it in public. She has not issued defamation action against Nicky Hager. The Minister has not even commenced an investigation as to whether the allegations are true. This is a Government that has been mired by allegations of cronyism, and Minister Coleman appears intent on continuing that.

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