Tuesday, 7 June 2022


Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022


Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022

Council’s amendments

Message from Council relating to following amendment considered:

Clause 189, omit this clause.

Ms THOMAS (Macedon—Minister for Agriculture, Minister for Regional Development) (18:31): I move:

That the amendment be agreed to.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this government amendment to the Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022, relating to the Veterinary Practice Act 1997, and take this opportunity to urge all members of this place to support the amendment. The Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill makes amendments to 11 acts within the agriculture portfolio to improve efficiency, operation, administration and enforcement. The Andrews Labor government, as the house well knows, has a strong record of supporting Victoria’s farmers, and this bill is designed to support our state’s $17.8 billion agriculture sector and the tens of thousands of Victorians that it employs.

The bill includes changes to the Veterinary Practitioners Registration Board of Victoria which reflect the importance of having an open and transparent selection process for government boards and for good board governance. The bill initially included a proposal to remove the requirement for the vet board president and deputy president to be registered practitioners. I was pleased to be able to discuss this matter further with Dr Hugh Millar, the president of the Victorian division of the Australian Veterinary Association, and I thank him for his time and his advocacy on this matter. The government recognises the need for further engagement with veterinary practitioners and the Australian Veterinary Association on this issue. As such the government will not be pursuing this change, which this amendment removes from the bill.

I would like to take a moment to again acknowledge the outstanding work of our vets right across Victoria. It has been a difficult year, indeed a difficult few years, for veterinarians right across Victoria. Off the back of the 2019–20 bushfires we have faced biosecurity outbreaks and then gone straight into a pandemic, and the pandemic has led to a huge surge in pet ownership and subsequently the demand on vets right across Victoria. The Australian Veterinary Association played a key role in Victoria’s response to the avian influenza outbreak in 2020, and of course this is just one way in which our vets demonstrate their importance to our agriculture sector. Right now we are working with vets and veterinary scientists right across the state again on the Japanese encephalitis outbreak that we have seen in piggeries in Victoria. So with a growing number of biosecurity threats on Australia’s doorstep the importance of vets in helping to protect livestock and the industry will only grow.

All of this of course has coincided with a shortage of vets. This is something when I am out and about right across rural and regional Victoria that people speak to me about. It is uppermost in vets’ minds because they are putting in incredible hours to service the needs of their clients, be they farmers or pet owners or others. It really is a great challenge and one that I am looking forward to working with our newly elected federal Labor government on to implement some changes which will help us address it. And we have also got a shortage of vet nurses. What we have seen as a consequence of these shortages has been burnout in the sector, and this is something we need to address. The toll of the work that our vets undertake also unfortunately impacts their mental health, and this is something I have also heard a lot about from vets and something that we are very concerned about. Their work is absolutely stressful in nature, and as some vets have told me, it is more often the owners of the animals who create that stress for them than the actual animals or them performing their role as vets.

So it is absolutely important that we support veterinary scientists, and that is exactly what this government is doing. In recognition of the staff shortages and the capacity constraints faced by the veterinary industry our government has recently added the certificate IV in veterinary nursing to the free TAFE list in 2022. This is a great initiative. We know how successful free TAFE has been, and it plays a really critical role in responding to skills shortages that we are experiencing. I would encourage any young person out there, particularly those that have a love of animals or farming or are already within the agriculture sector, to think about the opportunities that a career in either vet nursing or indeed as a vet could provide. Through this investment of course more Victorians will be encouraged to participate in education and training and broaden their employment opportunities, of which there are many right now, so it really is a great opportunity.

But we need to recognise that there is a limit to our local capacity to train increased numbers of veterinarians—it is very hard for me to say that, so I will just call them vets—a process which, as people will well know, takes six years. So our government also welcomes the addition of vets to the priority migration skilled occupation list. Once again I will reiterate how significant it is for our agriculture sector and for all the pet owners out there that we bring in skilled migrants and that we do all that we can to train our own in this fantastic career. While these are not short-term solutions, they will begin to ease the significant strains that are being faced by veterinary professionals. All Victorians can be grateful for the outstanding work done by those in the veterinary profession—by vets, vet nurses and their colleagues—often in very challenging circumstances.

We are also grateful for the work of the veterinary practitioners registration board in regulating the profession. The vet board has also experienced a significant increase in demand, and this bill responds with improvements to administrative provisions, including ensuring that the board is able to conduct hearings and meetings online using modern technology—a need that we all know has been highlighted by COVID-19. I very much look forward to continuing the excellent relationship that I have with the vet board and indeed with vets right across rural and regional Victoria.

It is really important that we continue to support this industry, that we encourage more people to think about careers that are available to them in veterinary science and that we again focus on the increasing role that vets will play as we face some of these very challenging biosecurity threats. We only need to look to Indonesia to see that lumpy skin disease and foot-and-mouth are now in Indonesia. This is a real and present danger to our agriculture sector and to our livestock. I might note that, just like Japanese encephalitis, lumpy skin disease is transmitted by mosquitoes; they are the vectors, and of course climate change is what is driving the increase in the number of mosquitoes and consequently mosquito-borne viruses.

I will finish by welcoming the real focus that we will now see from the federal government, from the federal agriculture minister, on addressing climate change. Our farmers experience the real impacts of climate change every single day. They want to see government take action on it. It is about the welfare of their industry and of their livestock, and indeed it poses an existential threat to agriculture in this country. That is why we need a government that will partner with us to take this action, unlike the previous federal government, which was not interested in pursuing any work in this area.

But I am perhaps straying from the amendment, and I do want to again—

Members interjecting.

Ms THOMAS: No. It is not, actually. It is a very narrow debate. I talked about vets and the importance of vets, and on that note I commend the amendment to the house.

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) (18:41): I join the debate on the Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022, which has come back from the upper house. I think there was a lot of misinformation in the community about this bill, and we all received a lot of emails about the idea that somehow under this legislation people were going to have their vegetables seized out of their gardens and were not going to be able to keep their carrots, that they were not going to be able to share meat after people went and hunted game meat. I think tragically, or very unfortunately, one of the upper house members created some of that furore in Victoria by actually directly misquoting what the minister’s answer was, in the upper house, to a question.

Mr Quilty from the other place actually put an article in the Alexandra Eildon Marysville Standard where he talked about the fact that ‘This bill prevents hunters from sharing meat harvested from game animals’. Mr Quilty said:

… hunters could be charged for shooting a pest animal … and feeding it to the next-door neighbour’s cat.

But if you actually look at what was said in the house, Mr Quilty asked Minister Tierney, after thanking her for a very comprehensive response:

Does the bill prevent anyone from slaughtering their own animals or game animals for their own consumption?

Minister Tierney said:

The answer is no.

Mr Quilty asked:

How about slaughtering their own animals or game animals or feral animals for dog food for their own dogs?

Ms Tierney said:

They would be able to do it.

So it is unfortunate that Mr Quilty chose to create a lot of angst within the hunting community, and I thank the minister’s office for putting out a fact sheet that corrected some of this. Field and Game Australia and the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia both put out articles to their members correcting the record, because what was put out there is just plainly wrong, but it caused a lot of angst for quite a few people and generated a lot of email traffic obviously to us as members of Parliament. So I think it is important that we get information out to constituents and the wider public, but it is also important that we are being factual when we actually do those things.

On the issue of clause 189, which has been omitted from this legislation: that clause meant that the veterinary board could have a non-vet chair, effectively. So between houses I think the minister made some comments about the government recognising they needed to talk to the veterinary industry more. I think that is probably very much the case, because my understanding in talking to Dr Hugh Wirth, who is now chair of the veterinary—

Ms Thomas: Hugh Millar.

Mr WALSH: Sorry, Hugh Millar. Yes, Hugh Wirth was RSPCA. Very, very different—and late. Hugh Miller is from the veterinary association. The government actually did not talk to the veterinary association about this particular amendment in the bill before it came to the Parliament. I think there is probably a recognition from the minister that they do need to talk more widely with the veterinary association.

In the veterinary association if someone makes a complaint about a vet, the vet is asked to appear before the veterinary association to have those complaints heard and dealt with. The argument that Dr Millar put to me, which I think is very valid, is that in all other states there is a vet, except for South Australia where it is actually chaired by a lawyer, and there are real challenges in how it works in South Australia having a non-vet as the chair. If there is a complaint against a vet for how they have handled someone’s cat, dog, horse, whatever, they come and appear before the veterinary board. If you have got a vet as the chair, the vet understands what the normal practices of veterinary practice are, and the person appearing has some comfort that they are being interviewed by someone that actually understands the veterinary practices that happen. Having a non-vet, or a lawyer particularly, as chair means they would feel less comfortable to be there, because it would turn into a court of law rather than resolving an issue around veterinary practices.

Between houses I think there has been a very big campaign by the veterinary association to a whole range of the parties in this place, particularly in the upper house, to have that particular clause amended. I think there was a queue to amend that clause in the upper house, in the other place, but obviously government amendments take precedence over everyone else’s amendments, and I think, as the minister said, they recognised that they need to talk more before they do something like this in the future. I think all the vets in Victoria, but particularly the veterinary association and their chair, Dr Hugh Millar, will sleep easier at night knowing that this clause now has been taken out of the legislation.

I share what the minister was saying about the pressure and the stress that the veterinary sector has been under over the last few years. They have been at the forefront of quite a few natural disasters in Victoria, with the fires, with the floods. If you go back to the fires in the Western District a number of years ago, no-one liked seeing animals that were burnt and suffering. I think all of us that have seen that at some time realise how horrific that is, and the vets are at the forefront of that. I think through lockdown they suffered the same as the rest of us with how they tried to operate their businesses and do the things that were necessary to make sure that their clients and their client’s animals were in the best care possible.

We most definitely do support the omission of clause 189 from this piece of legislation. I would have preferred to be here debating it with Melina Bath in the other place having moved it, rather than the government amendment, but we get to the same point in the end, so we wish it a speedy passage.

Ms SETTLE (Buninyong) (18:48): I welcome the opportunity to speak to this amendment to the Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 relating to the Veterinary Practice Act 1997. The Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill makes amendments to 11 acts within the agriculture portfolio to improve efficiency, operation, administration and enforcement. Victoria remains the largest agricultural exporter in Australia, with a massive 27 per cent of national food and fibre exports. That is about $14 billion in exports. We have over 21 000 farm businesses across the state supporting 75 000 jobs in the agricultural sector, predominantly located in rural and regional Victoria, and I am very proud to have quite a bit of agriculture going on in my electorate.

This bill is incredibly important. It shows really this government’s continued commitment to backing farmers and primary industry with our transformative 10-year agricultural strategy, which will strengthen, grow and protect the sector so it continues to be an absolute cornerstone of our economy. I thank the minister at the table, the Minister for Agriculture, for her commitment to this sector. As many in this house know, I come from a farming family, and it is very important to me that this government does focus on all that we need. This bill is very important for our vets, our veterinary practitioners. The minister made mention of the avian outbreak that occurred during COVID. Twenty per cent of all eggs are produced in my electorate, and that was a pretty devastating time for us all, so it was great to have vets on hand. I am glad that this bill continues to support vets and particularly our agricultural sector.

Ms BRITNELL (South-West Coast) (18:50): I rise to speak on the Agriculture Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 and am pleased to see the bill come back from the upper house with some amendments that were put forward—

A member: One.

Ms BRITNELL: One amendment that was put forward in the upper house, which makes significant improvements to the bill. The one in particular is the removal of clause 189, and this is an important change, because in the world of agriculture, farming and pet ownership vets play an important role. The veterinary surgeons that I have always worked with in my involvement in agriculture are incredibly skilled. During the consultation process, which the government should undertake when bringing in changes to acts that affect different industries—such as the vets, as they were affected—it was disappointing to hear that the vets actually had not been consulted. As a consequence of that, the change that was going to go through meant that the vets in the vets association would not actually have had to have a veterinary qualification or experience as a vet to be in the role of chair or deputy chair.

The reason it is so significant is that being a practising vet takes a great deal of knowledge. To get a qualification you need to understand the anatomy and physiology of many different animals, and your understanding of the disease processes and different practices depends on your skill set and your experience as to how you approach something. An animal, like a human, is not a machine, and there are different sorts of treatment and theories and whatever. So if a complaint comes against a vet, I would think it would be imperative that a vet actually be listening to that complaint so they can apply their experience and knowledge. I think someone from outside of the industry, such as a lawyer—which we see the example of in South Australia, which the vets in Victoria tell us is not working well—would make it very difficult for the vets to have some comfort in knowing that the case against them was being heard with a level of credibility and an understanding of the procedures that vets do with their animals.

I think it is, as the minister has also highlighted, an important opportunity for us to say thank you to the vets of Victoria. They do do an extraordinary job, not always in the best conditions—as we see from today’s weather. Many a time they will be out at 4.30 in the morning working with the farmers, as they did in my case, whether they are preg testing a cow or cows, helping a cow deliver a calf, diagnosing something and fixing the animals or being out in the calf pens with you giving you advice on how to raise the animals in a way that is conducive to the best care you can give. So there are fantastic vets like, in my experience, Dr David Beggs, who also works with the University of Melbourne training vets; Dr Chris Hibbert, very closely working with many farmers in our electorate doing terrific work not only in the animal space but also in the business space, helping farmers get the best outcomes; and Dr Sam O’Keefe. There is Michael Wraight. There are so many vets who have contributed so much.

You know, the reason I raise attention to the vets at this opportunity is they do help us in our agricultural sector to get the best outcomes and ensure we give the best care to our animals, and it is at times of fire and floods, which we have seen over the last number of years, when the vets are at the forefront. As has been highlighted by the member for Murray Plains, it is a really terrible time when your animals are in a situation where they have been affected by either fire, floods or even disease, and having those vets’ advice is a very important element in making sure you get the best advice and help, because you do really care about your animals, and it is really distressing when something goes wrong. It is like with your children, often; you get up in the middle of the night and you make sure the care is given. You check on an animal that is in labour before you go to bed, and if she has not delivered before you go to bed you are often up at 2 in the morning checking and up first thing in the morning as well to check whether the calves are fine before you head off to milk, in my case. That was my experience.

Just today, given that agriculture in my electorate is such a huge economic contributor, it was really pleasing to get a press release from the local food and fibre group—which is a group of industry people, farmers from all across the fibre and food sectors, be it dairy, be it beef, be it sheep, be it fishing or forestry who are involved in that—because it is such a big economic contributor. That group has been coming together for some time, trying to make sure that the best planning can take place so that industry thrives. And to see today the announcement from the member for Polwarth and me, the member for South-West Coast, that South-West Victoria have the top producing agricultural area of our nation is something I think we can both be very proud of. The statistics came out today from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and they have revealed that the Glenelg Hopkins and Corangamite regions—

A member interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: Well, it is here in the figures supplied by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and I quote from the chair, Georgina Gubbins, that:

… this incredible achievement should come as no surprise—

the member for Murray Plains—

to the industry and state.

Because we do know, the member for Polwarth, that our two regions do produce a high quality and high standard and contribute an enormous amount to the economy. The entire agricultural industry in South-West Victoria in fact accounts for over 21 per cent of all jobs and drives 60 per cent of the region’s economy and contributes to over $3 billion of annual gross regional product.

Natalie Collard, who is a friend of mine, heads up, as the CEO, Food & Fibre Great South Coast. I worked with her in Australian Dairy Farmers Federation times. She is very proud to be able to tell of these figures and says that with a bit more contribution by the government supporting them we could see a real improvement in productivity and outcomes. So just a small investment to help that group along, Minister, would be much appreciated.

Mr Walsh interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: Never miss a moment! But I would like to state that this clause that we are discussing today that has come back from the upper house and has been removed—

The ACTING SPEAKER (Mr McGuire): I remind the member it is a very narrow debate. So I am very happy to hear of the success of the region, but I think we need to get close to the adjournment.

Ms BRITNELL: I am pleased to see that clause 189 will be removed from the bill, and I commend the bill and the amendment that is put forward.

Motion agreed to.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Mr McGuire): A message will now be sent to the Legislative Council informing them of the house’s decision.