DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister. He's a South Australian MP, one of the most senior people in the Labor Party and he joins us now.
BUTLER: Good morning, everyone.
BEVAN: Mark Butler this debate over the pharmacies has been going on for months now. You say giving Australians access to two scripts instead of one is going to save them a lot of money. Pharmacists say, 'no, it'll send us broke'. Why is this coming to a head this week?
BUTLER: Because this policy takes effect on the 1st of September. And today is the last Parliamentary day where the Coalition is able to try to block the measure. So yesterday, Anne Ruston as the Shadow Health Minister – listeners will know – South Australian Senator Anne Ruston, Pauline Hanson and a couple of other senators lodged a motion to disallow this measure that would give cheaper medicines to 6 million patients. So, it has to be debated today because this is the last Parliamentary day before the 1st of September, which is when this measure takes effect.
And you say, David, that this has been debated for a few months, which is right. I announced this measure a few months ago. But really this advice was first given to the former government five years ago from the medicines experts that manage our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. They advised the former government five years ago to do this and the Coalition and the very powerful pharmacy lobby blocked the measure then. So, this really has been on the books now for five years.
BEVAN: Okay. So, do you have the numbers to win the day? Or does it look like the Coalition, One Nation and whatever other people they can get on board will be able to disallow your plan?
BUTLER: Senate crossbenchers tend to keep their cards pretty close to their chest as these votes are coming up. You know they're inundated by calls not just from the government and the opposition, but by lobby groups and such like.
So, I never take anything for granted. We'll know at about 11 or 11.15 when the vote takes place. But I have to say to the Senate, this is a really important moment. Not only does it deliver cheaper medicines for 6 million Australians who are on the same medicine, usually not just for years, but for decades. It just doesn't make sense to require them to go back to the pharmacy every single month for a 30-day script. So, it's good for their hip pocket, it's good for their health. We know from overseas evidence it improves medication compliance, because pretty much every country we usually compare ourselves to already does this. And it will also free up millions of GP consults which are desperately needed right now for serious health conditions rather than just going into a doctor to get a routine repeat script. This is why every patient group, every doctors’ group, is strongly supporting this measure. And it's time for the Senate to back patients rather than this powerful pharmacy lobby.
NIKOLAI BEILHARZ, HOST: If you don't get support from the Senate, though, today, is that it – this won't take place on the 1st of September?
BUTLER: That's right. I mean, I've heard the Coalition say that this is somehow a delay for six months. I've got the motion from Anne Ruston and Pauline Hanson in front of me. It doesn't say that. The motion in the Senate disallows the measure. So, it's gone. So, cheaper medicines for those patients – that's gone.
The $1.2 billion of new investment into pharmacies that I promised – every single dollar that the Commonwealth saves from this measure is going back into pharmacy – well, that goes as well. So, there are big stakes here for the Senate. This is really important for people's health. The health system is under enormous pressure after three years of a pandemic and in a global cost of living crisis. Those patients who have to go back to the pharmacy year after year, decade after decade for the same medicine deserve some relief as well.
BEVAN: Now, in a moment, we'll hear from Anne Ruston, the Shadow Health Minister and South Australian Senator. But before you leave us, Mark Butler, it's been confirmed that the Federal Government – your government – is walking away from the radioactive waste dump at Kimba after all of the debate, after all of the money and the planning that's been spent there, the government's just walking away. And we are effectively back to square one. We don't have a place for a single repository for all those medical radioactive gloves. Let's not even think about what we're going to do with the AUKUS stuff when we get to that.
BUTLER: We need one - and you made that point - I think you described them as gloves, David, and they are gloves, but so much else besides. Most of our radioactive waste comes from nuclear medicine, which saves lives day in and day out around the country. And it's stored now at about 100 different sites across Australia. And there's been a clear position of governments – Liberal and Labor alike – we need to find a better way to store this stuff. As some of your listeners might know, the Federal Court very recently, in the last week or two overturned a decision that the Minister in the former government made to declare Kimba as the site for this repository. And the Federal Court did that on the basis that the former Minister was regarded as having what's called 'apprehended bias' in making that decision. So, all of the work that the former government did on that site essentially has been set aside by the Federal Court.
Now, this was very divisive, as I think you said in your introduction to this morning's session, very divisive up there. And the Minister for Resources, Madeleine King, has had to consider that decision and decide upon a future course. And she will be making a statement to the Parliament this morning about the Government's position. I can't confirm what's in that statement, that's a matter for her. But this is obviously a really important issue for the local community, for the traditional owners, farmers and landowners who have been deeply troubled by this issue. But it's a big issue for the nation as well.
STACEY LEE, HOST: So, what happens now? Do you start from scratch or are there other options?
BUTLER: This isn't my portfolio. The Resources Minister is making a full statement to the Parliament, which is proper. This is an important issue for the country as well as for the community around Kimba. And it's really a matter for her to outline that statement. And I'm sure that will be the subject of debate after it's released.
BEVAN: Is it fair to say that all of this is being seen through the prism of the Voice? And what I mean by that is that it would have been very awkward for the Albanese Government to, on the one hand be promoting a Voice to Parliament for Indigenous people, and in the next moment ignoring the Barngarla people and their opposition to the Kimba radioactive waste dump?
BUTLER: Opposition was broader than the traditional owners – the Barngarla people – as you point out, David, there was opposition among other non-Indigenous...
BEVAN: But they were right up the front and they made it really clear. I mean, they were very much at the forefront of this debate, and they said, 'we do not want this, please do not do this'.
BUTLER: Right. And they took the action to the Federal Court...
BEVAN: Exactly. And they were the people taking the action in the Federal Court. So, if the Albanese government had said, 'yeah, look, thanks but no thanks, we're still going ahead with this thing'. 'Oh, and by the way, we really want to hear what Aboriginal people have to say and that's why we're changing the Constitution'. It would have been a little jarring. Is that fair?
BUTLER: I'd caution against people conflating these two things. The reason this is before the Government is the Federal Court found that there was apprehended bias in the decision of the former Minister, Keith Pitt, the former Coalition Minister, in making the decision to choose Kimba. The current government – our government – now has to respond to that. The Resources Minister is the responsible minister to make the decision around our response, and she's doing that according to the terms of the judgement of the Federal Court. Not a debate – as important as that debate is – around the referendum later this year.
BEVAN: Okay, Mark Butler, thank you very much for your time.
BUTLER: Thank you, everyone.