An organisation that has been advising Australian governments on alcohol and drug policy for almost half a century shut its doors on Friday.
The Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, which has operated since 1966, was placed in voluntary administration in November after Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash decided it would receive no further funding.
Senator Nash told a parliamentary hearing this week she had refused requests to meet with the chief executive and board of the council, instead giving her then chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, the job of breaking the news to the organisation.
Mr Furnival resigned two weeks ago following revelations about his role in taking down a healthy food rating website and his co-ownership of a company that had lobbied for the junk food industry. The company had also performed work for the liquor industry as recently as 2012.
While Senator Nash also refused to meet with state and territory alcohol and drug organisations about the funding decision, she said this week she had met more than once with the industry organisation DrinkWise.
”It just beggars belief that a minister responsible for alcohol seems to be taking policy decisions without talking with any of the key groups,” said Mike Daube, the Public Health Association of Australia’s spokesman on alcohol.
”I think she needs to show us whether she’s the minister for prevention or the minister for the alcohol and food industries.”
Senator Nash this week cited a ”significant amount of duplication” among organisations in the alcohol and other drugs area as justification for her decision to cut funding to the council. But she admitted a drug and alcohol resource library run by the council, which provides information to thousands of health professionals and researchers each year, was not being replicated.
Senator Nash said she thought the service could be ”accommodated” elsewhere, but no decisions had been taken.
Her spokeswoman said it would be considered by a review being conducted of organisations in the drug and alcohol sector. The review, by former public servant Jenny Hefford, is due to be completed next month.
Council chief executive David Templeman questioned the minister’s decision to cut funding to his organisation before launching the review. ”Let’s put everything on the table rather than dumping the top national peak organisation in the first instance,” he said.
In a last-ditch effort to save the council, 10 health leaders including Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton and former chairman of the National Preventative Health Taskforce Rob Moodie appealed to Prime Minister Tony Abbott to reinstate the organisation’s funding.
As a result of the closure of the council, 14 people have lost their jobs. The resource library, which is owned by the Health Department, will remain in the council’s old building in an inner suburb of Canberra, but will not be accessible.
Senator Nash this week blamed the former Gillard government for failing to put arrangements in place to fund the organisation beyond June 30 last year.
Mr Templeman said the organisation received ministerial approval in April last year for funding through to July 2016, but contracts were never signed.
Senator Nash said she provided the organisation with $750,000 to deal with its ”immediate difficulties”.