Image for Australia’s private pathology lobby shifts political donations strategy

The private pathology industry, which is promoting the privatisation of state-based public hospital pathology services and campaigning against cuts to federal incentives for pathology tests, has dramatically shifted its pattern of political donations in the last year.

In the last financial year Pathology Australia, the lobby group for most of the private pathology companies, made only one donation: $25,000 to the Tasmanian Liberal Party. The lobby group’s donation brings the Tasmanian Liberals contributions over the last four years to $102,200.

The only other donation the group has made over the disclosure threshold was to $32,000 to the Labor Party’s national office back in 2011-12 financial year, when Labor was in government.

In its February 2015 submission to the Federal Government, Pathology Australia argued that “governments have benefited substantially from the shift in the provision of pathology services to the private pathology sector and further benefits are available.”

Late last year Tasmanian Times revealed Pathology Australia and other pathology companies were lobbying the Tasmanian Government to privatise public hospital pathology services.

Subsequently, the Minister for Health, Michael Ferguson told parliament “at this moment there are no plans to outsource any more public pathology services to the private sector,” he said.

However, Ferguson did not rule out privatisation of public hospital pathology services.

While Ferguson acknowledges meeting the private pathology companies, it remains unclear whether he has met with their representatives at Liberal Party fundraising events. Tasmanian Times does not suggest the donations have directly influenced Mr Ferguson’s decision-making.

Pathology companies slash donations to federal Liberal Party

While Pathology Australia’s donations strategy has remained focused solely on the Tasmanian Liberals, its member companies have changed tack.

Sonic Heathcare, the largest private pathology company, donated over $257,000 in 2013-14, all to branches of the Liberal Party or individual Liberal campaigns. Included among its donations was a $36,500 contribution to the Tasmanian Liberals.

However, Sonic Healthcare has not submitted a return for the latest financial year, suggesting it made no donations or, if it did, they did not exceed the $12,400 disclosure threshold.

Sonic Healthcare did not respond to a request for clarification on whether it made any donations in the last financial year. Nor did it respond to a request asking why, if it made no donations, it had gone from contributing over $257,000 one year to nothing the next.

Healthscope, another major private pathology and health services company, donated just over $39,100 in 2013-14, of which $12,100 was donated to the Tasmanian Liberals. In the latest year the company’s donated fell marginally to $35,650. Of that the Tasmanian Liberals received $11,000.

The federal Liberal Party – which irritated the pathology industry when Treasurer Joe Hockey proposed in his first budget to introduce a co-payment including for pathology services – was the biggest loser from the pathology industry’s shifting support. In 2013-14 Healthscope contributed $25,000 to the federal Liberal Party’s coffers; a year later they contributed nothing.

It was a similar story with Sonic Healthcare: in 2013-14 the company contributed $200,000 to the federal Liberal Party but donated nothing the following year.

The federal Liberal Party’s loss was a gain for the major parties in Victoria.

Healthscope’s donation to the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party had been a meagre $1500 in 2013-14. However, in the run-up to the November 2014 state election, the company contributed $16,100 in three separate donations.
The defeat of the Napthine Government saw the donations tap turned off for the Liberals and on for Labor.

Victorian Labor, which had previously received nothing from Healthscope, received $8550 in three instalments in the five months after its election victory.

In June 2015 Healthscope sold its Australian pathology business – which turned over $281 million in 2014/15 – to the private equity firm Crescent Capital Partners. While it remains listed as a member of Pathology Australia, whether it continues to be a political donor will not be clear until data for the current financial year is publicly released in February 2017.

Nor has Primary Healthcare, which is not a member of Pathology Australia, made donations above the disclosure threshold.

In the space of one financial year, political donations from the pathology sector to all political parties fell from over $323,000 to just $60,650.

Of the pathology sector’s donations in the most recent financial year the Tasmanian Liberal Party reaped $36,000, suggesting that – at least in the last financial year – the private pathology industry remained hopeful the Hodgman Government would accede to its lobbying demands to privatise public hospital pathology services.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based Contributing Editor of Tasmanian Times. His earlier articles on Tasmanian Times are here.

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• March 15, 2016: The Attorney-General, the Public Trustee and donations to the Tasmanian Liberals

• March 15, 2016: Comment: The right to know & donations to the Tas Liberal Party by the Public Trustee’s lobby group

• February 1, 2016: Tasmanian Liberals disclose origins of less than one-fourteenth of income

• December 14, 2015: Who are the invisible major donors behind the Tasmanian Liberal Party?

• October 29, 2015: What happens if a major political donor doesn’t disclose?

• October 28, 2015: Who’s a Liberal donor gonna call? Rentbusters!

• October 27, 2015: The private pathology industry emerges as major Tasmanian Liberals donor