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AMA criticises ALP supporting changes to Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme; Shadow Minister wants Foreign Minister to provide information about confidential ONA information reported on by Andrew Bolt.

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Wednesday 23 June 2004

AMA criticises ALP supporting changes to Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme; Shadow Minister wants Foreign Minister to provide information about confiden tial ONA information reported on by Andrew Bolt


MARK COLVIN: There are signs that Labor's U-turn over the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme has done the party more electoral damage than anything since Mark Latham became leader last year. 


The party's green l
ight means medicines are now set to rise by 30 per cent, and some Labor Party members are already feeling the backlash in emails and telephone calls. 


The Combined Pensioners Association says it was appalled. The Greens and Democrats say the decision is a disgrace. 


One day on, the Labor leadership team says the decision was difficult, but necessary.  


Backbenchers are hoping that the political heat will soon pass, but in Question Time the Government took full advantage of the situation. 


From Canberra, Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath reports. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: The external critics are lining up to fire shots at the ALP over its PBS backflip.  


The Combined Pensioners Association's Bob Jay.  


BOB JAY: Well, to be honest, Catherine, we were appalled. We've got pensioners who are on the borderline, who have no other source of income than the pension, and they're going to be affected by that. We have part-time workers, we've got people who are on a healthcare card, low income people who are going to be seriously affected as well.  


So yes, we were stunned, I couldn't believe it. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: The Australian Medical Association's Mukesh Haikerwal believes the 30 per cent rise in the cost of medicines is bad policy. 


MUKESH HAIKERWAL: We were concerned in 2002, 2003, and now in 2004, about the steep increases in co-payments that will result for patients when they get their prescription medications. We fear that this is going to be detrimental to the health of some of our patients and that people won't be able to afford the medication that they need for their good health. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: And the political critics are even more strident.  


Greens Senator Bob Brown. 


BOB BROWN: Neither of the big parties deserve to be in Government. What a astonishing thing that both of them have decided that to fund the tax cuts for the rich they'll take money out of the average family or out of pensioners when they go to the pharmacy. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett and Progressive Alliance Senator, Meg Lees, are vitriolic. 


MEG LEES: Whoever the strategist is that thought this up should be sacked. Effectively what they've done is put the greatest pressure on the sickest Australians. 


ANDREW BARTLETT: It's an absolute disgrace that Labor has supported this Government to make medicines more expensive. It will hurt the sick and the poor. Labor themselves have been acknowledging that it will hurt the sick and the poor for the last two years. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: But Labor's biggest problem on this one is the reaction inside the Caucus and by Labor supporters.  


Two weeks ago, Julia Gillard and Bob McMullan wrote to the Government suggesting a deal on the PBS. What's angered much of the Caucus is that the fist most of them knew about it was yesterday. 


The debate was almost lost in the Caucus. The only thing that saved it was a plea from Mark Latham. The majority of Caucus members weren't in favour. But solidarity in the party is such that they aren't speaking out publicly. But today, many Labor members have received emails and phone calls at electorate offices condemning the decision.  


Today, shadow finance spokesman, Bob McMullan, was trying to paper over the differences. 


BOB MCMULLAN: I'm not making an apology. I am acknowledging that it was a really tough decision we made here yesterday. Nobody in the Caucus found it easy. I was its advocate and I didn't find it easy, so none of my colleagues to whom I was making the advocacy found it easy, and I don't blame them one bit. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: While in the House of Representatives, Labor had given the Government plenty of ammunition.  


The Prime Minister began the treatment. 


JOHN HOWARD: Let me say that again - the time has come, Mr Speaker, for Labor to join the Government, Mr Speaker, and to act on this sweet sounding rhetoric. But I, I don't think we should limit the reform horizon to disability support pension... I might ask, rhetorically, Mr Speaker, will Labor now join the Government and support reforms to Australia's unfair dismissal laws, Mr Speaker. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Labor backbencher, Roger Price, did more damage by suggesting on his way into Parliament this morning that Labor could review policies like its opposition to the changes proposed to the disability pension. 


ROGER PRICE: Well look, I think we should look at everything that we've held back in the past. I mean, personally, and it's only my view, governments should be able to challenge. We have a government... 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: And afterwards, Roger Price was told in no uncertain terms by the party leadership that he'd made a major mistake. Roger Price didn't turn up to Question Time, and Peter Costello had a field day. 


PETER COSTELLO: My goodness. They started airbrushing their transcripts, and now they airbrush their members, Mr Speaker. We call on the New South Wales right to release Roger immediately. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: For the record, Labor has ruled out Roger Price's suggestion.  


And in defence of the PBS decision, supporters of Mark Latham say he had to make the choice, because sticking with the position added $1.1 billion to the bottom line of Labor's election promises. And even internal Labor critics are refusing to speak out publicly, committed instead to party unity. They just hope the political cost is short lived. 


On another front, a year ago, Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt, wrote about a confidential ONA report. Kevin Rudd wants more answers and a full explanation from the Foreign Minister about where Andrew Bolt got his information. 


KEVIN RUDD: What's Mr Downer got to hide? I mean, there's not a lot of rocket science in the question I put in Parliament - did you, or did you not through your office, seek to obtain a fresh copy of this top secret ONA code word document on the 20th of June, or thereabouts, last year? 


MARK COLVIN: Kevin Rudd, ending Catherine McGrath's report.