Deputy PM Michael McCormack in a Pharmacy Guild tie, with NSW President David Heffernan (left) and National President George Tambassis (right) and Queensland President Trent Twomey (far right) (Source: Facebook)

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s annual parliamentary dinner, held in the Great Hall of Parliament House, is a veritable night of nights on Australia’s lobbying calendar.

Politicians of all stripes mingle over dinner and drinks with one of the country’s most powerful lobby groups. Formality melts away. Relationships are built. And it’s all done away from the public gaze.

Getting the ear of government is no problem for the guild, often described as the most powerful industry lobby group in Canberra. It enjoys access to politicians from the prime minister down, through a time-honoured mix of donations and schmoozing — a successful formula which has kept in place policies which critics decry as anti-competitive and against the interests of consumers.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was the star at last year’s bash, and the timing couldn’t have been more critical. The event was held in September, and expectations were high that Hunt would say where the government stood on a policy which is fundamentally important for the guild: the Community Pharmacy Agreement, which governs the finances of Australia’s more than 5000 community pharmacies.

Negotiated every five years between the federal government and the guild, the agreement guarantees the fees pharmacies will be paid for prescriptions. It also enshrines rules which forbid a new chemist from opening within a set radius of an existing shop — a rule critics say limits competition and is against the public interest. This year, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, the national pharmacy peak body, will have a seat at the negotiating table for the first time.

As Trent Twomey, the guild’s acting national president at the time, put it: “With a new [agreement] scheduled to be in place by mid-2020, there’s no better time for the guild and our members to hear at first hand the views and priorities of Australia’s minister for health”.

Whatever Hunt did or didn’t promise that night, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack made no bones about where he stood.

An image discovered on social media shows McCormack smiling for the camera with the boys from the guild. All are decked out with the distinctive blue and gold Pharmacy Guild tie — the apparel worn by its lobbyists when out on business. 

A spokesperson for the deputy prime minister confirmed the guild had given the tie to McCormack. Asked if it was appropriate for the deputy prime minister to be dressed in the attire of a lobby group, the spokesperson said: “The Pharmacy Guild of Australia is a national employers’ organisation which is helping to build a strong and viable pharmacy sector right across the nation.

“Many Australians rely heavily on their pharmacist for advice and support which is why the deputy prime minister and the federal government is proud to support and work with the guild to ensure we maintain a strong health sector.”

Deputy PM Michael McCormack with Queensland branch president Trent Twomey (far left), LNP MP Warren Entsch (right) and former guild president Kos Sclavos (far right)

The image of Australia’s deputy prime minister dressed like a guild staffer is the ultimate symbol of the organisation’s success as a Canberra influence peddler. It also reveals much about where the guild’s political support lies. 

Inq’s investigation into the guild’s lobbying efforts has unearthed a virtual photographic diary of guild contacts covering a who’s who of Australian politics. 

The photo gallery includes all Liberal prime ministers since 2013. They show:

  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the guild’s Christmas drinks last year
  • Morrison again, apparently for a guild “brekky”
  • A selfie of the guild’s Trent Twomey with Malcolm Turnbull
  • Tony Abbott attending a Twomey-organised event in 2014 (with Nationals Senator Matt Canavan in tow)

Other images — discovered via a trawl of social media — show records of meetings between guild officeholders and a bevy of senior ministers including Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

In the caption of an Instagram post with Greg Hunt, a member of the Queensland branch committee Paul Jaffar extols the “great discussion” the two had about topics including the critical question of location rules.

Health Minister Greg Hunt with Queensland branch committee member Paul Jaffar (Source: Instagram)

There are also images of guild staff with one-time health minister Sussan Ley and, separately, then-junior minister Karen Andrews.

The pictures offer a rare insight into the relentless lobbying efforts — and the rare access — which have made the guild such a powerful force in Canberra politics. And while the guild builds relationships across the political spectrum, Inq’s analysis shows that the National Party and regional Queensland politicians are increasingly pivotal to its political strategy.

The rising star

The guild’s Queensland president, Twomey has emerged as a powerful political player in his own state and nationally.  

Twomey’s branch proved its mettle in 2018 when the state held a parliamentary inquiry into pharmacy ownership restrictions. Despite numerous submissions calling for a loosening of location rules, the committee took the guild’s position and advocated no change.

The state’s most powerful politicians regularly appear in guild photo ops, and events like its Queensland parliamentary dinner. 

Queensland President Trent Twomey with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and opposition leader Deb Frecklington (Source: Instagram).

Twomey is a one-time campaign director for Warren Entsch, the LNP member for Leichhardt, for whom he’s been touted as a potential successor.  

On Twomey’s watch, the Queensland branch of the Pharmacy Guild has played the regional political game hard with donations to Bob Katter ($5000) and, controversially, to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation ($15,000).

Queensland branch committee member Paul Jaffar with One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson (Source: Instagram)

Katter in particular has openly advocated for policies — pushed by the guild — which aim to protect community pharmacies from being taken over by the supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths.

Describing pharmacies as “the only remaining holdouts against the supermarket giants”, Katter has argued — along with the guild — that “with locally owned pharmacies the pharmacist lives in the town and the money stays in the town”.

“But if you have your pharmacies owned by Coles and Woolworths, you can bet they’ll be manned by section 457 visa pharmacists from overseas”.

It’s a position that resonates strongly with the National Party, which has its own distaste for the kind of open-slather competition which might see the demise of local pharmacies and loss of local jobs and services. 

Reinforcing the guild’s rightward shift in Queensland politics, the state branch last year appointed Gerard Benedet — a conservative warrior and former director of “anti-GetUp” Advance Australia — as director of the state branch. 

Federally, the guild poured thousands into ALP coffers last year, anticipating a Labor victory. But their appointments, and years of lobbying puts them in prime position to work well with the Morrison government.

Twomey, a potential Liberal rising star, is leading their negotiation for the seventh CPA. The guild knows what it wants, and it knows how to get it.

Next: how the guild protects pharmacies at any cost…