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02 April 2015

The Pharmacy Guild: the most powerful lobby group you've never heard of

There's always been a fear that if they ran a campaign they could bring a government down

I was in my early 20s, my first year of full-time journalism, and had been assigned a task well above my pay grade: to uncover the 10 most powerful lobbyists in Australia.
At the end of each phone call, I would ask: is there anyone else I should look at?

When the first person said the Pharmacy Guild, I ignored them. How powerful could chemists be, I sniffed. Pretty small stuff, surely, compared to the miners and the gambling industry. To tell the truth, I'd never heard of the guild before.

But as more and more veterans of the Canberra lobbying scene mentioned it, I decided to take a look. What I found convinced me to name the Pharmacy Guild Australia's most powerful lobbyist.

"They've been one of the most influential lobby groups ever seen,"

Steve Hambleton, then president of the Australian Medical Association, said.

"There's always been a fear that if they ran a campaign they could bring a government down," said Chris Walton from the Pharmacy Coalition for Health Reform.

"They've managed to entrench this model of pharmacy that no one even questions," Jennifer Doggett, a health policy analyst at the Centre for Policy Development, also told me.

"Why aren't there pharmacists in supermarkets? Why aren't there home delivery pharmacists? People don't even ask these questions because of the restrictions the Pharmacy Guild has achieved."

I knew I was dealing with serious influence when the guild's then-president declined an interview. Everyone else had agreed.

"One of the secrets of effective lobbying is not to talk about it too much in public," said Greg Turnbull, the group's communications officer.

It's a lesson worth remembering when considering who is influential: it's often those making the least noise who really matter.

Now, the power of the Pharmacy Guild is going to be tested as it never has before.

In his final report on competition policy - the first of its kind in more than two decades - economist Ian Harper lays down a challenge to the government: to rip up the rules that make community pharmacy one of the most protected sectors in the economy. New entrants are now banned from opening a pharmacy within 1.5 kilometres of an existing business and must be owned by registered pharmacists. This has shielded community pharmacists from competition from the likes of Coles and Woolworths. Ripping up these rules should, in theory, bring prices down for consumers.

The government is considering the report's recommendations and has not indicated whether it accepts or rejects Harper's call to deregulate the pharmacy sector.

There's no doubt that the Pharmacy Guild will be privately lobbying Health Minister Sussan Ley and other ministers to kill off the idea before it's born.

The consequences of taking action won't need to be spelt out: a campaign, fronted by community pharmacists around the country, against the government (and any crossbench senators who support deregulation).These include pharmacists in marginal seats. Surveys show that pharmacists are highly trusted by the public - rating well above politicians and, for that matter, journalists.

As well as self interest, the pharmacy lobby has a set of potent arguments on its side. Most notably that deregulation would allow Coles and Woolworths to become more dominant than they already are.

"Do we really want medications and associated health advice to be doled out like discount bread and milk?" asks Nick Xenophon, the wily, populist independent senator from South Australia.

With Prime Minister Tony Abbott promising a "dull" budget, there has been concern the government has misplaced its reform cojones. Letting the free market rip through the pharmacy sector would prove that bravery - crazy bravery perhaps - still has a place in Australian politics.