Veterinary Workforce

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (18:29): I am pleased to rise today to speak on Mr Meddick’s motion and indeed vets and the issue around companion animals, wildlife and also large animals that we use both for recreation and as our food source—and very valuable it is. I must admit to the house that as we only saw this motion today at lunchtime I feel that I would have much preferred to be able to have some deep discussions with both my local vets and also the Australian Veterinary Association.

I have actually just put in a very brief call to Dr Hugh Millar, and I thank him for interrupting his afternoon to have that discussion about some of his thoughts. I certainly will not tie him down to his position, because he is flying blind generally on this Veticare motion, but I will make some comments based on our discussion in a moment.

Certainly we know that owning a companion animal is a wonderful thing and for most families brings about a sense of mental health, a sense of looking after something that is not yourself, a caring environment that can reduce levels of depression. That companionship is very important, and on many occasions for various reasons we do not have human companionship. If people live alone, then a pet can be an absolute godsend and an enhancement to people’s lives. If you do have a family setting or a couple where the family has moved out and left the family pet, it certainly also can provide a very warm and joyful experience to own companion animals. What we do know is that through the COVID period in the last two years pet ownership across the nation has gone up by about 8 per cent, or nearly 10 per cent. We also know that it is now nudging 70 per cent of the population that has a pet of some form. I am not going to drill down species by species, but we also know that unfortunately—and I am hearing this from a dear friend of mine who is a vet nurse—post COVID we are seeing more pets being relinquished or people going back to work and not feeling that they are able to look after that pet, and in not wanting to neglect a pet, putting it up for adoption. I will speak to that a little bit later in my contribution.

We do know that certainly—and I agree with Mr Meddick on this one—our vets are under the pump. Certainly there are workforce shortages, and that has been very clear again speaking with my local vets throughout the pandemic. There has been this surge of pet ownership. Also people have been home and looking at their pets and finding things wrong with them and then taking them off to the vet. I know that to get in has been a very big challenge, and also having staff that are furloughed through illness potentially is really putting pressure on our veterinary practices, both small animal and indeed large vet practices. I know when you talk about large vet practices, certainly in regional Victoria—and I live in South Gippsland—they really are under the pump. They are 24/7. If you have got an animal down for whatever reason, if you are calving or the like, that vet comes out 24/7, and that is also putting pressure on them with this post-pandemic environment.

I would like just to talk on a few issues that can impact on workforce shortages. First of all, there is a very high bar set—and there should be—for becoming a vet, becoming a doctor of veterinary science. It takes up to six years to be a registered veterinary practitioner and then many years of experience to really put yourself into that very high calibre. I know that our local vets do as well have a very great training procedure about nurturing new vets that come into the practice. Indeed in our particular one I know that they are often having people from overseas, from South Africa and from India from time to time. Attracting people to come from overseas of course stopped during the pandemic as well—it was a no go. So there is an attrition rate with those students, and also reduced or low entry numbers into university. That pathway of committing for six years is a challenge, and all of the fees that go along with that. There was reduced capacity during COVID and greater demand for services, and indeed speaking to my dear friend, she talked about fatigue—both fatigue of the vets and of the vet nurses and staff. Also unfortunately she spoke about customer unrest, we will say, or even customer abuse, and having those unreal expectations about that pet that you have brought in.

A Melbourne vet clinic has cited suicide as one of the most significant reasons why vets leave the industry. It is indeed somewhere between two and four times higher than in general practice. I think Mr Meddick might have made reference to that. I congratulate the Australian Veterinary Association on providing support for veterinary practitioners from their angle. It really does need to be a whole-of-practice support network.

In terms of the closure of vet clinics and after-hours care in regional Victoria, I take up Mr Meddick’s point: as I have just said, particularly large animal vets have to be called out at all times and with all levels of pressure. Indeed, speaking with Dr Millar about the extra lengths that vets go to in terms of wildlife support, if somebody brings in an injured animal, whether it be from a road injury or the like or if they find an injured animal, I know that vets go above and beyond on many, many occasions. But of course it still costs them, so there is that cost impost into the bargain. When I first moved into the place where I am living—my home—very soon afterwards a kangaroo came right up to our front door and curled itself up on our doorstep to die. My street had a fantastic vet in it, so we brought her down and she euthanised it on my front doorstep. It was very sad for the animal, but we think the joey survived.

Going on, one of the other comments that has been relayed to me by a constituent is in relation to animal rescue—the cost of desexing, microchipping and vaccination. They also put constraints on people, and there are the added pressures that can play out.

One other comment, with the limited time that I have, in relation to wildlife and hospitals: one of the biggest killers of wildlife, undisputedly, is bushfire. We saw that in the 2019–20 bushfires, when 1.5 million hectares of our bush was incinerated. It is probably almost unquantifiable, but they were absolutely in the thousands upon thousands. One way we can stop the decimation of our wildlife is to do all the proper practices—Indigenous firestick cool burns and preparatory burns. Really active management of our bush will have a positive influence on the life and wellbeing of our wildlife.

Finally, in terms of the potential for foot-and-mouth disease, the former Nationals member for Benalla is Dr Bill Sykes. When the outbreak occurred in the UK many years ago, he went over there and participated in the euthanising process, and quite devastating it was. What he is doing right now is connecting with old veterinary colleagues, or retired vets, to bring them out and have that conversation: if there is—and, please, we hope that there will not be—an outbreak in Australia, how those vets will be able to support the community and their farmers, because it will be gut wrenching for farmers to have to put down animals due to foot-and-mouth. We hope that does not need to happen. I again call on the government to do everything it can.

In relation to Veticare, I spoke briefly with Dr Millar. I think we had a discussion around the need to have consultation about this. The devil is always in the detail. Something may sound good on a piece of paper, but there needs to be a whole lot of workshopping around who pays for it and how and what it looks like.