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Parliament returns and
so do the Senate inquiry
By Mark Thornton
At the 11th hour, the Greens decided to
postpone a vote in the Senate on whether
there should be a Senate inquiry into the Fifth
Community Pharmacy Agreement (5CPA).
A spokesman for Greens Health
Spokesperson Senator Richard Di Natale,
who put up the proposal for an inquiry,
said that under the current terms of
reference the proposal did not have enough
support to pass through the Senate.
But all is far from lost, the spokesman told
Canberra Commentary, for the vote was
merely postponed for three weeks till
28 February. By then the Greens expect to
have negotiated new terms of reference
with the government, which would allow
the party to garner the support it needs.
‘ The postponement gives us a chance
to pursue negotiations for revised terms
of reference with the government,’ the
There is a great deal of hope vested in
this ploy but it is not misplaced, for the
Greens do have some influence with the
government as it faces a tricky beginning to
the parliamentary year.
‘ We are not just hopeful, we are genuinely
optimistic,’ the spokesman added. ‘All the
Mark Thornton is a Canberra-based journalist and
was a member of the Federal Parliamentary Press
Gallery for many years. Any opinions expressed are
not necessarily those of PSA, its Board or staff.
Greens are on board with this one. But we
are prepared to wait till the end of February.
There is a lot on in the House this (first
sitting) week, what with private health
insurance, and we did not think we could
fully negotiate with such a distraction.’
And a significant distraction it is, one
the Greens themselves believe in. The
government and its new Health Minister
Tanya Plibersek are controversially pushing
for new laws to introduce a means test on
the health insurance rebate, a proposal
which the Opposition is flatly opposing.
However, the Greens support the principle
and could get it over the line.
In return they would expect the
government to support their proposed
Senate inquiry. But there is a rub, for
the Greens say they cannot support the
government’s intention to increase the
Medicare levy surcharge for high income
earners without health insurance. They
called for the government to split its
private health reforms so that bills to
means test the private health insurance
rebate and the Medicare levy surcharge
could be voted on independently.
But the fact that there is at least some
common ground means Senator Di Natale
is justifiably hopeful for his inquiry, and
Ms Plibersek is at least prepared to talk
about it. The government and the Greens
seem pragmatic enough to know how
important they are to one another.
So media lookouts were not surprised
to see Ms Plibersek knocking on Senator
Di Natale’s Melbourne office door in the
week before Parliament’s first sitting of
the year. The meeting appears to have
gone well, with Senator Di Natale telling
the Sydney Morning Herald afterwards:
‘I was encouraged, I think we both want
to improve the performance and equity
of the health system.’
However, both parties remained tight-
lipped about what was actually discussed.
There would certainly be considerable
pressure on the government to be seen to
be, at the very least, considering a Senate
inquiry into 5CPA and the Pharmacy Guild’s
exclusive negotiating rights over how such
a large amount of money is distributed.
The powerful Guild, well known and
respected even outside the industry for
its superior negotiating skills, is handling
the matter with its usual aplomb.
It was undoubtedly bruised last year
by a succession of exposes about its
commercial endeavours, exposes that
fuelled the Greens determination to
push for an inquiry, but you would hardly
know it now.
A Guild spokesman said the inquiry call
caused uncertainty for Guild members
and all community pharmacies and
should be ditched completely. The Guild
would be lobbying Senators to do so, the
However, the Greens have more support
waiting in the wings. Fresh from winning
its own Senate inquiry into engineering
shortages, the Association of Professional
Engineers, Scientists and Managers,
Australia, which represents ‘working
pharmacists’, continues to support calls
for a Senate inquiry into 5CPA.
‘A Senate Inquiry is the best way to review
the current arrangements and make sure
that we deliver a better system for patients
and pharmacists – not just the pharmacy
owners’ guild,’ a spokesman said.
By the time Canberra Commentary is
published, the inquiry issue may well have
been dismissed by the government. But
strong feelings will not dissipate easily
and as March 2012 dawns we may well see
the forces supporting a new negotiating
system for CPAs launch a new campaign.
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