Thinking outside the city


Nationals candidate Carl Cooper (R) with party leader Michael McCormack and Mandy Cooper

In the second of our series of profiles of pharmacists standing for Parliament, we speak to Tasmanian pharmacist, and National Party candidate, Carl Cooper

Candidate profile: Carl Cooper
Party: Nationals
Seat: Bass, Tasmania

Most legislators don’t understand the pressures pharmacies—particularly in rural areas—and their patients are under, says Carl Cooper.

And it was change in pharmacy policy which helped set him on the path to candidacy for the Nationals.

Mr Cooper has had a long and varied career: starting out as a high school music teacher and professional singer, he retrained as a pharmacist while in his 40s and, with wife Mandy, operated a number of stores, lectured at university and became a farmer—and now he’s turning his hand to politics.

“There was a new pharmacy school opening at CSU Wagga, and I was in my 40s at the time—and I thought, ‘let’s apply as a mature age student’,” Mr Cooper, who is running for the northern Tasmanian seat of Bass, told the AJP.

“They accepted me alongside all these really bright pharmacy kids, and Mandy worked at Wagga Base Hospital as a clinical pharmacist while I went back to uni.”

The family moved from Canberra to Wagga Wagga, and Mr Cooper underwent his training and became immersed in the regional community.

“During the time we were there, we said to ourselves that if an opportunity arose to buy in Wagga, we’d stay.”

Taking the chance

The opportunity arose, on the south side of town, an area which has a working class demographic with many health issues, but low health literacy. Eventually, Carl and Mandy built up a number of businesses, looking after seven nursing homes at one stage, as well as redeveloping the pharmacy and developing relationships with locals—health professionals as well as patients.

Mr Cooper said one example was an initiative between the Coopers and a local sleep doctor who was a “sharp operator” who had developed a screening process to identify people with sleep apnoea.

“We had all these people come in for sleep diagnoses, backed up by his expertise. That taught me that you can think outside the square a bit in community pharmacy. This was an ability to pick up people in the community who otherwise would not get picked up—high risk people, obese, diabetic people, those with poor health literacy, who aren’t normally transacting into the health community.

Wagga was completely unlike Canberra, which is dominated by a lot of academically smart people who are always prepared to tell you what to do.”

The Coopers also owned and redeveloped the Southcity Pharmacy in Wagga, which was named Pharmacy of the Year by the Guild in 2018, after they sold it to current owners Luke van der Rijt and Michael O’Reilly.

“When they brought the PBS reform package in, a number of pharmacists in Wagga were concerned and didn’t think the government understood what they were about to do to community pharmacy,” Mr Cooper said.

“Our local member [in Wagga] is Michael McCormack. We asked to approach him to explain the ramifications of the policy, and Michael, Luke, Mandy and I organised a number of meetings with him, to explain first, what community pharmacy does. I think a lot of politicians don’t know what a pharmacy does.

“But we also explained the price disclosure legislation—how this would affect all community pharmacies. It was a healthy discussion. We tried to communicate the reality of how changes to the landscape would have a significant effect on community pharmacies and how they would operate.

And he was appreciative—not only did he develop a relationship with us, he understood after we’d explained.”

Answering the call

The Coopers’ children left town to pursue studies and careers elsewhere, and the pair decided to relocate to their native Tasmania—Carl was originally from Hobart, Mandy from Launceston.

“I was approached by Michael McCormack,” Mr Cooper says of his decision to enter politics. “Michael was looking for someone down south to help, and I put my hand up.”

At this stage, Mr Cooper hopes to help bolster support for sitting MP in Davenport, Steve Martin, in a state where traditionally the Nationals have not had a strong foothold.

But they do have a strong understanding, like pharmacists, of community, he said.

“After living in Canberra and Wagga, it’s interesting how the discussion is always about telling regional places how to do business,” he said. “Particularly when we lived in Wagga, a lot of the decision-making in NSW was very Sydney-centric and had appalling ramifications for smaller regions around NSW.”

Common concerns

There are similar issues in Tasmania, he said.

Mr Cooper told the AJP that a recent example was the suggested extension of dispensing periods from one to two months for 143 molecules.

“The Guild was pretty quick to pick up on that. This is the problem with government policy: if they should make a change like that, the pharmacies sitting on the edge of viable, the small, regional or remote pharmacies, would basically be no more.

“Policy always amplifies louder into regional and remote parts of Australia,” he said.

“And by their profession, a lot of pharmacists engage with their communities on the ground and are very good at dealing with, not necessarily resolving, but understanding issues and what people’s sentiments are. They’re close to them.

“Pharmacists do transact well into their communities and can probably identify issues more than most. And the Nationals, by their history, are a group that really stuck up for people in their communities.”

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