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Why promoting the public interest will win the public’s trust


By Simon Hoyle, Editor, Professional Planner

This article was first published by Professional Planner on 1 September, 2014, and can be viewed at:…

A week or so ago the President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Associate Professor Brian Owler, was interviewed on ABC radio – and other places – about the AMA’s proposed amendments to the government’s $7 co-payment for visits to a general practitioner.

Owler spoke knowledgeably, at length and passionately about the need to ensure Australia did not follow the US into a “two-tier” healthcare system, and why the most disadvantaged in our community need to be protected from measures that could adversely affect their standard of heath.

At least in the interview I heard, Owler did not once speak about the impact that the co-payment would have on the practices of his members. He didn’t mention the increased red tape that the co-payment would create.

It was a near-textbook example of how a professional association speaks on an issue, even when that issue has a potentially significant effect on its own members.

Placing the public interest first, and speaking about that, is second nature to a professional association like the AMA. And for that reason, among others, it’s why governments and regulators alike treat associations such as the AMA seriously, and involve them in the formulation and implementation of public policy.

The impact of a policy may or may not be in the interests of the association’s members, but that is not the association’s first priority. The AMA’s first concern is that the healthcare needs of all Australians continue to be met, without favour and without discrimination based on an individual’s ability to pay. Of course, in doing that, the interests of the AMA’s members are advanced. But they’re advanced in the context of what’s good for the public interest, not what’s good for the self-interest of doctors.

Interestingly, the interview with Owler was followed by interviews with other players in the healthcare system, all of whom spoke about the impact of the proposed co-payment on their members (that is, healthcare workers and professionals) and on the businesses their members own and operate. And they also complained about the “preferential treatment” they perceive the government is giving to the AMA in the debate.

We’ll see how seriously policymakers treat associations when the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial services inquiry into financial planning standards gets underway for real. The committee is accepting submissions until Friday this week; thereafter there will be a series of hearings, and a report published before the end of the calendar year.

It’s not always easy, when an association’s members perceive that the public interest is contrary to their own. But that is, at the end of the day, a terribly short-sighted view. At the end of the day, good public policy is good for everyone.

“Preferential treatment” of professional associations shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; it’s one of the privileges often granted to true professions. Good public policy is good public policy. It puts the public interest first; it puts the interests of consumers after that; and it puts the concerns of special-interest groups next – and let’s face it, all associations, including professional associations, are really only highly polished special-interest groups.

That’s why any association representing a membership that stands primarily to protect and advance the public interest will always get a good hearing in Canberra and will always stand a reasonable chance of influencing the direction of government policy.

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