“665 pharmacies to close”? Stephanie Tran investigates the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s “biggest fight”, the scare campaign over 60-day scripts, hidden payments to Liberal and Labor parties and a sneaky carve-out from lobbyist rules.
In the lead up to the Federal government’s reforms to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) introducing 60 day scripts, The Pharmacy Guild engaged in a concerted lobbying effort to block the reforms. They had succeeded in an 11th hour reprieve in 2019 – this time not so much.
Once dubbed Australia’s most powerful lobby group, The Pharmacy Guild made no secret of its mission. With a reputation as a formidable force on the political landscape, they launched a lobbying campaign that sought to influence key policymakers and stop the government’s reform agenda in its tracks.
“Federal Parliament has been overwhelmed by reps from The Pharmacy Guild over the past 3 months because of the prescription reforms that were before Parliament. We hadn’t seen much of them before that but this issue drew a well organised group to Parliament,” said a Senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
History of the pharmacy reforms
In a Linkedin post they called the announcement of 60-day dispensing “the biggest fight in the Guild’s near 100-year history.”
Reforms to the PBS that would allow doctors to issue extended prescriptions to their patients for a select number of medications were initially proposed in 2019 in response to a 2018 recommendation from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC).
The PBAC recommended increasing the maximum dispensing period from 30 days to 60 days for medicines commonly prescribed from chronic conditions. According to the PBAC, extending the supply of medicine prescribed to patients “would allow clinicians to exercise greater choice and provide patients both financial and convenience benefits.”
As a result of the decreased frequency of trips required by patients, the revenue pharmacies made through dispensing fees would be reduced. The Guild’s National President Trent Twomey argued that the reforms would force 665 pharmacies to close. However, experts have questioned the credibility of the claims, labelling them ‘hyperbolic hysteria’.
The measure was expected to appear in the 2019 Budget. However a few days before the Budget was announced, the reforms were scrapped by then Health Minister Greg Hunt after lobbying by The Pharmacy Guild.
According to reporting by the Sydney Morning Herald, “with an election just weeks away, Mr Hunt reversed his position after the Guild took out a full-page advert in The Australian newspaper, warning against any budgetary measures that might disadvantage the 5,723 community pharmacists whose interests it represents.”
The Guild Playbook
This time around, The Guild’s playbook was much the same. Using their political power and deep pockets they sought to persuade the government to reconsider the reforms.
In 2021-22, The Pharmacy Guild received $14.7 million in membership fees across their branches.
Donations from The Pharmacy Guild spiked in 2018-19 and 2021-22, coinciding with both election years and proposed amendments to the PBS.
According to data from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), The Pharmacy Guild donated $577,565 to political parties in the 2021-22 financial year. The disclosure threshold for the 2021-22 financial year was $14,500 meaning that donations below this amount don’t have to be disclosed by the parties that receive them. This is problematic as it can lead to a significant proportion of political donations going undisclosed.
The Coalition received $267,235. They only disclosed a measly $65,000.
Labor received $310,330 disclosing only $202,930 in donations from The Pharmacy Guild. This total includes a $110,000 platinum membership to the Federal Labor Business Forum, an upgrade from the $27,500 they paid for a silver membership the year before. The Federal Labor Business Forum is the Labor Party’s corporate membership body. The forum allows corporations to pay for platinum, gold and silver memberships that provide companies access to exclusive networking events with parliamentarians. The major parties do not disclose their corporate members and there is minimal public information about the operation of the forums.
Access to Parliament
Political donations are just part of the picture when it comes to the game of political influence. According to Dr Cameron Murray, “donations are an entry ticket, they’re a signal that you want to play this game of mates and if you are given a favour, you will reciprocate in the future.”
As of February this year, 1791 people hold orange passes. The passes are approved by politicians and they give holders unfettered access to the halls of Parliament.
“There were a series of delegations roaming the corridors knocking on doors, seeing who they could get to answer. You literally couldn’t walk down the corridor without bumping into them. It was pretty extraordinary,” said the Senator.
“Their purpose is to open the doors of ministers and key decision makers. They’re literally a conduit to public money and regulatory favours. It’s hard to see how that’s a useful democratic contribution.”
The Senator highlighted the need to disclose the holders of these passes.
There’s no transparency about it. There’s no transparent lobbyist register federally, you don’t know who has a pass.
“There should be transparency on who does get these rights. If you exclude members of the public and only allow a select few in, people need to know who they are,” said the Senator.
Oodles of spin
According to their 2021-22 financial report, the National Secretariat of the Pharmacy Guild spent $7.1 million on ‘public relations campaigns’.
Two months after the Labor government was elected to power, The Pharmacy Guild hired third party lobby group EFJ Advisory, run by Eamonn Fitzpatrick, former press secretary to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and “veteran of Labor election campaigns including Anthony Albanese’s winning 2022 federal campaign.”
Despite their organised efforts to influence public policy, Pharmacy Guild operatives are not considered lobbyists under federal lobbying regulations. This is because the Lobbying Code of Conduct defines a lobbyist as a person or organisation that conducts lobbying activities on behalf of a third party. Due to this narrow definition, industry groups like The Pharmacy Guild and in-house lobbyists are not classified as lobbyists. Experts argue that this is a significant oversight.
“Registration of lobbyists is limited to third party lobbyists at professional lobby firms – only a fraction of those that actually lobby decision-makers. We have barely any public information about contact between lobbyists and officials at the federal level. Australia is significantly behind other nations and indeed many of the states when it comes to this transparency,” said Kate Griffiths, Director at The Grattan Institute.
Calls to fix “toothless” Code
Experts have called for reforms to increase scrutiny and transparency alongside greater enforcement of existing regulations.
“Australia’s lobbying regulations consist of a toothless and unenforceable code of conduct administered by the Attorney General’s Department, and the Minister Code. Since the Lobbying Code was adopted in 2008 there have been no recorded breaches. The nominal 18 month ‘cooling off’ period is a joke as evidenced by former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne walking into a job advising EY on defence contracts,” said Clancy Moore the CEO of Transparency Australia.
“Lobbying is an important part of the political process but in Australia some groups like gambling, defence and the fossil fuel lobbies have a disproportionate access and influence over our politicians. This means that government decisions are often made in favour of vested interest against the public interest. This uneven playing field has had a corrosive effect and undermines trust in our democracy,” he said.
Research by The Grattan Institute recommended publishing ministerial diaries and lists of lobbyists with passes to Parliament House along with reducing the donations disclosure threshold to $5,000 to combat the issue of undue political influence.
“Our work shows that the well-resourced businesses, particularly those in heavily-regulated sectors like property, mining and gambling get a lot more airtime than other groups. The sheer amount of money they can throw at trying to influence politicians – whether through hiring former politicians and staffers, using political donations to ‘buy’ access through fundraising dinners, or inviting politicians to desirable sporting or cultural events – gives them more face time than other groups are able to achieve,” said Kate Griffiths.
“This access can then translate to influence: there are plenty of examples of interest groups successfully lobbying for policy changes to be put on – or taken off – the table, which look contrary to the public interest.”
Photo above: Michael West Media
Michael West Media