Kos Sclavos is the hot-headed pharmacist from Brisbane who leads the nation’s most feared and effective lobby group: the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. His supporters laud him as a “colossus”; his critics accuse him of stifling competition, depriving patients of discounted medicines and putting pharmacists’ profits ahead of the community’s health.
Unlike Heather Ridout, Sclavos’ influence doesn’t cover a broad range of issues — and he’s certainly not as well-liked. But if you’re looking for power that’s concentrated, power that’s embedded in our political system and power that’s wielded through intimidation, not just persuasion, then Kos is your man.
“They’re an aggressive lobbying machine,” says Chris Walton of the Pharmacy Coalition for Health Reform. “They have a bullying approach. There’s always been a fear that if they ran a campaign they could bring a government down.”
Steve Hambleton, President of the Australian Medical Association, says: “They’ve been one of the most influential lobby groups ever seen.”
For most lobbyists, just getting access to government can be a struggle. But not for Kos and his mates at the Guild: their privileged status is enshrined in the National Health Act. Every five years, away from the prying eyes of the media, the government and the Guild negotiate a deal to compensate pharmacy owners for distributing PBS medicines. Last year’s Community Pharmacy Agreement topped $15 billion.
These clandestine deals have ensured that pharmacy remains one of the nation’s most protected industries: chemists face no competition from supermarkets and new entrants are banned from opening a store within 1.5km of an existing business.
“They’ve managed to entrench this model of pharmacy that no one even questions,” says Jennifer Doggett, a health policy analyst at the Centre for Policy Development. “Why aren’t there pharmacists in supermarkets? Why aren’t there home delivery pharmacists? People don’t even ask these questions because of the restrictions the Pharmacy Guild has achieved.
“There’s no public health reason for it — it’s just about restricting supply.”
The government, of course, could amend the legislation to cut the Guild out — but this would risk a major backlash by pharmacy owners in key marginal seats. Most Australians see their pharmacist every year, and pharmacy is regularly ranked as one of our most trusted professions. This gives the chemists real clout in Canberra.
At the top of this very powerful organisation sits a very powerful man. Kos Sclavos, who started his career as a pharmacist in Ipswich, and had run the Guild’s Queensland Branch and the Australian Institute of Pharmacy Management before taking over as the Guild’s national president six years ago.
Sclavos was the only lobbyist in our top 10 who declined The Power Index‘s request for an interview. “One of the secrets of effective lobbying is not to talk about it too much in public,” said Greg Turnbull, the Guild’s communications officer and a former adviser to Paul Keating and Kim Beazley.
Those who know Sclavos describe him as “frenetic”, “savvy” and a workaholic with an “encyclopaedic” knowledge of pharmacy.
“He has a huge amount of energy for a guy who’s carrying a fair bit of weight,” says John Bronga, Sclavos’ predecessor as Guild national president. “I’ve seen correspondence from him sent at three or four o’clock in the morning … it was always obvious that he had ambition and ability.”