The withdrawal of the Australian Medical Association from the NT intervention may have taken the relationship between the Government and the premier doctors’ union to “a new low” but the AMA has systematically botched its relationship with Labor since Rosanna Capolingua became president and is now paying the price.

The AMA was a persistent critic of Labor in the run-up to the election, criticising Labor for failing to consult with the AMA in developing its health policy, praising the then-Government and, on 22 November, issuing a “report card” backing the Coalition over Labor, declaring some of Labor’s policies “disappointing” and the Coalition’s “much stronger than Labor’s.”

This need not have damaged the relationship with the new Government, given its professed willingness to start with a clean slate with all but a few select individuals, like Peter Hendy in his previous role at ACCI. But Dr Capolingua has a particular problem with the Government’s GP Superclinics proposal, and has repeatedly attacked it, claiming it would damage patient care. The AMA’s real concern, however, is similar to that of the Pharmacy Guild: competition for existing providers.

In fact the AMA’s focus on protecting its members at all costs has led it into repeated run-ins with the new Government. The AMA opposed a COAG proposal to establish a national register of doctors — shortly after the “Butcher of Bega” revelations about Graeme Reeves – claiming it would threaten patient care (in fact “patient care” is the AMA’s default justification for everything it opposes). Capolingua also accused the Government of having an ideological motive for raising the Medicare surcharge threshold.

The latest stoush is over the Government’s efforts to expand the role of nurses and other allied health professionals in the provision of primary health care. The AMA rejects anything that fails to maintain the primacy of doctors. Capolingua inevitably reckons it will damage patient care. The AMA and the Australian Nurses Federation are meeting today in Canberra to discuss the issue.

Capolingua also appears to have paid a direct price for so consistently opposing the Government. She missed out on an invitation to the 2020 Summit, while her predecessor Mukesh Haikerwal went along. Ditto the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. Dr Rod Pearce, the chairman of the AMA’s general practice committee was appointed to the Government’s primary health care advisory panel over Capolingua.

Capolingua’s claim that the Government is conducting a smear campaign against the AMA over its role in the NT intervention is unlikely to change this.

When first elected last year, Capolingua declared that she got along with most people and that she thinks a good working relationship is important. Rudd’s response on the weekend about the AMA and the intervention, that he was “sick and tired of the politics of this stuff”, suggests she has clearly failed miserably with the Government.

Neither the AMA nor the Health Minister wanted to comment to Crikey on their relationship.

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