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Friday, 3 December 1976

Dr CASS (Maribyrnong) -The Opposition does not intend to oppose this Bill. However, I would like to recount a little history of this matter because we feel that a rather ironical situation has arisen. From about the early 1960s when the Liberal and Country Parties were in power chemists had agitated for a continual review of the remuneration they received for dispensing prescriptions under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. In the course of that period, namely from about March 1961 to July 1970- a quite considerable period- there was a minimal increase of 2c a prescription. When Labor came into office in 1972 the chemists received a fee of 45c for dispensing national health prescriptions. Over the course of our time in government we had many discussions and were often confronted by the pharmacists. As a result of the negotiations that took place during that short period of 3 years we increased the fee they received by 50 per cent. In other words, it went from 45c to about 62c.

As the time of our disposal, as it were, from the government benches we had started discussions with the pharmacists with the idea of setting up some form of arbitration because it was quite clear that this brawl would never end unless both sides agreed to independent arbitration in some form or other. We had not resolved the problem, I admit that. The pharmacists were still unhappy but at least they were interested in our proposals and we were proceeding with some constructive discussions to try to resolve the problem. I repeat that the pharmacists were still not happy. They still had a claim in for more money which in sum total ran into millions of dollars.

One of the many promises made by the Liberal and National Country Parties was a promise to resolve this problem immediately they got into office and to satisfy all the needs and the anxieties of chemists for long term security in this area and so on. But of course, as has been the case with many of the promises of this Government, once having gained power it sought to buy its way out of this matter by the cheapest way possible. It made a gesture to resolve the problem. It tried to buy the chemists off by offering an increase of 5c a prescription. Part of the deal was to be that that would wipe the slate clean. Whatever the previous complaints of the chemists, from then on there would be no more. They would have to then wait a further lapse of time for changes in the cost structure and so on to occur before they put in a further claim. Needless to say the pharmacists have refused to accept this bribe. Instead they have proceeded to campaign and have even gone to the extent of instituting High Court proceedings to try to force the Government to adhere to what they consider was an agreement entered into by the previous Liberal Government, not even by the previous Labor Government.

We welcome the fact that after so many months the Government has come to its senses and has introduced this legislation. Of course, it is very doubtful whether that was necessary, but still I will not quibble about it. It at least represents some action. The legislation proposes to establish a joint committee consisting of 4 representatives from the pharmacists and 4 representatives from the Public Servicepresumably they will come from the Department of Health although one of them may come from the Treasury, I do not know, because that is not specified- and to be presided over by a chairman who will be a Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. This is a very pompous structure, but the point of the exercise really is to get an arbitrator to arbitrate between the Government and the pharmacists. If that is the way in which the Government wants to handle this matter, that is OK. But if one reads the legislation carefully that is in essence all it is. It is basically what we were proposing to do when we were deposed. I shall not recapitulate the history of this matter. I think there is no doubt that the pharmacists saw that whilst they were still dissatisfied with what we had done they were more dissatisfied with the inadequacies of the Liberal Government, and they continue to be dissatisfied. Hopefully this move will resolve the problems.

For these reasons the Opposition does not intend to oppose this legislation. I have simply sought to mention some of the facts behind this matter and to make the point that, as is common with many of the promises made by the Liberal and National Country Parties, now those parties have gained power their promises in this area are not worth anything. It has only been the efflux of time and the increasing pressures from various sections of the community that has forced the Government to - finally honour the promises which it very freely made. I suggest that those promises were very significant in persuading the community to trust the Liberals and to dispose of the last Labor Government. I fear that the community is learning a lesson the hard way. We support the legislation.

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