A report in The Australian newspaper today highlights a rift that has developed between the Federal Minister for Health, Dr Michael Wooldridge, and the Australian Medical Association.
The AMA is the peak organisation representing Australian doctors. It has 26,000 members and is led by Dr Kerryn Phelps.
According to the report, a meeting was held a fortnight ago involving Dr Wooldridge, two of his advisers, Dr Phelps, her partner and personal assistant Jackie Stricker, and AMA vice-president, Trevor Mudge.
Dr Phelps said the AMA was attempting to talk to Dr Wooldridge about boosting medical rebates for general practitioners, the impact of competition policy in the bush, funding for public hospitals and the May Budget when he made the threat. Relations between the AMA and Dr Wooldridge have been deteriorating for months after the group threatened to campaign at an election if the Government did not deliver an increase of up to $1.5 billion in Medicare rebates to GPs.
Dr. Phelps claims that Dr Wooldridge threatened to destroy the AMA unless it toned down its criticism of the Howard Government. She also claims that Wooldridge threatened to destroy her personally:
“He threatened to destroy the Australian Medical Association and he threatened to destroy me personally . . . unless we towed the line,” Dr Phelps alleged last night.
“Frankly, we are disappointed with his performance as Health Minister; he has been ill-mannered and belligerent, and shown poor judgment.
“His behaviour was quite irrational and we believe it is becoming more so.”
The Health Minister has denied the allegations, a spokesman arguing that what Dr. Phelps considered “threatening and bullying might just have been a full and frank discussion”!
“The AMA was making public threats about what it was going to do to the minister, what it was going to do to his seat and what it was going to do to the Government if he didn’t cave in to demands for a doubling of the Medicare rebate,” the spokeswoman said.
“You tell me who’s doing the bullying.”
She also accused the AMA president of “getting personal” in criticising the appointment of the minister’s friend, and former ACT chief minister, Kate Carnell to a job on the general practice training board. When in Canberra, the minister stays in a separate flat at the back of Ms Carnell’s house.
The article says that Dr Wooldridge has turned away from working with the AMA, preferring to consult with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Divisions of General Practice over general practice funding issues. This highlights the competition that can often exist between pressure groups, as well as demonstrating the ability governments have to play one group off against another.
The article says:
The AMA has responded by seeking the support of National Party leader John Anderson in a bid to get a relaxation of competition law as it applies to bush doctors, and sought to directly negotiate with Prime Minister John Howard.
This demonstrates that there are different paths to gaining political access and influence.
The AMA has had a long history of political involvement. Its relationships with governments, both coalition and Labor, have often been marked by conflict. This latest indication of strains between the Howard Government and the AMA highlights the ongoing political struggle involving one of Australia’s most influential pressure groups.