We’re champion whingers – the response to the federal budget proves it

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Whatever else the federal budget revealed, it certainly cemented our status as champion whingers. The widespread chorus of “what about me? It isn’t fair” that erupted around the budget reveals the narrowness of the prism through which some see the role of government.

Exhibit #1: the Pharmacy Guild’s blatantly self-interested attempts to press-gang their customers into prosecuting their dispute with federal Health Minister Mark Butler. His sin? He dared to upset the lucrative pharmacy gravy train.

The essence of this spat is simple. The Albanese government announced an extension of the currency of a prescription from 30 to 60 days.

It has been a while since Canberra has witnessed a tantrum like the one performed by the Pharmacy Guild’s president, Trent Twomey, last month. He unconvincingly tried to excuse his outburst by explaining that he is from north Queensland. His outburst has achieved nought other than to strip away even the slimmest suggestion of merit from the chemists’ special pleading.

Credit: Matt Davidson

This modest measure, recommended by the independent Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and the Australian Medical Association, means millions of Australians will save money. Patients with chronic health problems requiring constant medication will pay a dispensing fee to their chemist six times a year instead of 12, reducing the cost of more than 300 common treatments.

Some pharmacists – including our local provider – responded by plastering their dispensaries with notices imploring their customers to complain to their local member of parliament, obligingly providing their full contact details to facilitate what they hoped would be a flood of complaints.

It is a curious if not misconceived and futile campaign that asks customers to overturn a policy that saves them money.

Local chemists can genuinely be at the heart of their community – a knowledgeable pharmacist is a community asset and well worth their weight in jelly beans. In contrast, some pharmacies take their social licence with a dash of commercial insouciance, paying bare lip service to the responsibilities that accompany the monopoly right to supply prescribed medications.

Pharmacies are seeking to expand their role in delivering primary care – for instance, providing COVID-19 vaccine boosters. They should give as well as take.

The federal budget pharmacy dispute perfectly illustrates how loudly a vested interest can whinge when disappointed. The Pharmacy Guild is a major donor to both major political parties and no doubt will be demanding an explanation from the ALP apparatchiks about why it ought to continue to make donations if those contributions do not deliver results for them.

The next line in the 1982 pop song, What About Me, from Moving Pictures is “I’ve had enough, now I want my share”. It is a song about love, but could instead be an anthem of these times.

We ought to prepare ourselves for more of these base calculations as the Andrews government this month delivers a state budget that will dramatically tighten spending across the board in a climate of deteriorating finances for Victoria.

Treasurer Tim Pallas has an impossible tightrope to negotiate. Which of the lavish promises made during the 2022 election campaign will have to be deferred, abandoned or shaved? Which union or business will wonder why they bothered donating to the ALP, like the chemists are? Who will be whingeing the loudest on May 23?

Does the Andrews government dare to disappoint or upset the teachers’ or the nurses’ union, or are they protected species? Will we see widespread public-service redundancies, incurring the wrath of the influential Public Sector Union? Or does Treasurer Pallas risk an arm wrestle with the property and construction sector – the CFMEU, the developers and builders – a crowd renowned for their calm, understanding and reasonable behaviour when negotiating?

The list of potential savings is target rich, an indication of how much the government is trying to do at once. Maybe the brakes get applied to the under-construction airport rail, despite the embarrassment. Might we see a reduction in Dan Andrews’ signature program of level-crossing removals? Will the already long-term vision of the Suburban Rail Loop get pushed off into the never-never?

The Andrews brand has always been “I get stuff done” or more precisely, as the premier puts it, “I say what I’ll do and I do what I say”. If the brand or identity of a politician is based on a commitment to keeping their word, yet the rules of economics mean not all promises can be kept, then that becomes a problem.

It is now accepted that the infrastructure binge dubbed “The Big Build” has contributed to capacity constraints and cost increases for public and private sector projects alike. The premier is already trying to deflect responsibility, recently drawing attention to the erroneous predictions about interest rates made by the Reserve Bank governor over the past few years.

The state opposition is so consumed by their Shakespearean internal dysfunction, they have no energy or time to exert genuine pressure on the Andrews team. But the ALP knows that their Coalition opponents will not stay this chaotic forever.

The final lines in What About Me, prophetic as they are, refer to anything except politics and the economics of a beleaguered state government. “You just take more than you give” is as fitting a chorus as any.

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