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Thursday, 31 August 1989
Page: 691

Senator CALVERT —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Housing and Aged Care and it follows a statement that the Minister made yesterday in reply to a very user friendly question from Senator Childs. Is the Minister aware that the database on which the Pharmaceutical Benefits Remuneration Tribunal based its rather amazing recent decision in relation to payments to pharmacists represented a response from only 0.3 of one per cent of pharmacists in Australia? Is the Minister also aware that under the new guidelines pharmacists will actually be required to pay the Government for the privilege of dispensing prescribed items? Accordingly, can the Minister please advise the Senate of any other business or professional group which is expected to provide a service without any mark-up whatsoever or, in this case, provide a service at a loss? Given that the decision is likely to lead to the closure of over 1,000 pharmacies around Australia-a fact which the Government has not denied-can the Minister advise just which health care professionals the Government expects to appear and fill this massive void in primary health care for elderly and isolated Australians? Finally, can the Minister inform the Senate as to the cost to the Australian public of advertisements placed in metropolitan newspapers today in which the Minister has sought belatedly to justify the Government's decision?

Senator COOK —I am constantly amazed by Senator Calvert. On Tuesday night I was on duty during the adjournment debate and Senator Calvert made a speech in which he inferentially admitted that he had not read the report. It now seems that he may have read at least some parts of the report. At least that is some progress; I would hope that Senator Calvert would read the whole thing and I would hope he understands these points which are the points I made in answer to the question yesterday.

The Tribunal which brought down this report was set up by legislation of the Fraser Government. The Tribunal stands independent of this Government and its decisions are binding on the Government and on the industry. It is not, therefore, as the honourable senator said in his question a case of when the Government will make a decision. He has said that the Government has a hands-on responsibility in this. It does not; so I think that many of the rhetorical points that the honourable senator has made about effect are points being promoted by particular interest groups to win an argument rather than points that are being promoted objectively on the issues being analysed. They are simply debating points. At this stage it has to be said that the Minister today-or is it tomorrow-is having talks with the Pharmaceutical Association of Australia about the application of this report and that the Minister also pursued, before the Tribunal brought down its decision, an attempt to forge a common approach to put to the Tribunal between the pharmacists and the Government. It was the unilateral action of the pharmacists in withdrawing from that that meant both the Government and the pharmacists put different views to the Tribunal.

I return to these principal features. The Tribunal was set up under legislation enacted during the Fraser years. We have not tinkered with that; it is independent of government; it is binding. If there is a way of resolving these matters, they will be explored fully in the proper talks between the Association and the Minister. Senator Calvert's alarmist rhetoric is just simply an unwelcome addition to what is a serious and important debate in Australia.

Senator CALVERT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Whether the Opposition has read the report or not, the Minister has not answered the question I asked. If the Government takes advice from the Remuneration Tribunal, which he said he is bound to do, will the decision, if taken, close down 1,000 pharmacies in Australia? That is what the Opposition is interested in. We could not care less what the Tribunal thinks. It is the pharmacies of Australia we are concerned about.

Senator COOK —Dear, oh dear! This is a tribunal that has sat for many months, has heard over 160 submissions and has come to a decision based on the evidence before it; and Senator Calvert is saying that it does not matter what the report contains. Senator Calvert is concerned about only one thing. I do not intend to add credence to his inflated figures that he bandies around here just to make a political point. The most sensible thing is to deal with issues of this complexity, detail and importance in a properly managed way. We are doing that.