Veterinary Surgeons Amendment Bill
Debate resumed from 1 June.
Mr SLACK-SMITH (Barwon) [9.21 p.m.]: The purpose of the Veterinary Surgeons Amendment Bill is to allow the Board of Veterinary Surgeons of New South Wales to become more independent from government and to tighten the disciplinary measures within the Act. The bill will also permit the Board of Veterinary Surgeons to impose conditions on the registration of veterinary surgeons; permit complaints about veterinary surgeons to be made to the board and the Veterinary Surgeons Investigatory Committee; provide for an additional specific kind of conduct of a veterinary surgeon that constitutes misconduct in a professional respect; and provide for a category of conduct of a veterinary surgeon that is serious misconduct in a professional respect, and to specify certain conduct that constitutes professional misconduct of that kind.
The Board of Veterinary Surgeons was first established in 1923. In 1995 a bill was introduced into this Parliament to make the Board of Veterinary Surgeons independent from government. As far as we are concerned the more independence certain organisations have from governments the better off they will be. At the moment six registered veterinary surgeons, out of the 2,300 registered veterinary surgeons in New South Wales, are appointed by the Minister or the membership, and they constitute the Board of Veterinary Surgeons of New South Wales. The board is self-funding, and the bill formally gives the board statutory powers of a corporation, including the power to lease premises and employ staff. Therefore, the board is now becoming independent from government.
The bill also tightens the disciplinary measures within the Act. It is common knowledge that some veterinary surgeons have been supplying performance-enhancing drugs to people. These are not only administered to humans, but also to animals. Under the current legislation the board has been very restricted in disciplining these offenders. The bill defines serious misconduct as action involving threats to the safety of persons or animals or to the international reputation of Australia in relation to the export of animals or animal products, or sporting events. The bill will enable the committee investigating a complaint of serious professional misconduct to direct the board to suspend a veterinary surgeon from practice for up to 60 days.
In 1995, 38 complaints of professional misconduct were made against veterinary surgeons in New South Wales. By 1998 that number had increased to 59. So far this year 15 complaints have been received. That is a very serious indictment. It is placing the 2,300 veterinary surgeons in New South Wales in the position of acknowledging that there is something wrong in their profession, but this is a small minority of veterinary surgeons. Unlike other professional registration bodies, such as the Law Society of New South Wales, the Board of Veterinary Surgeons cannot at present place conditions on the registration of veterinary surgeons at the time the veterinary surgeon applies for registration. Once the board becomes totally independent, with the newer disciplinary powers proposed in the bill, it will be able to protect the public and animal welfare and will bring significant benefits to New South Wales. We support the bill.
Mr MARTIN (Bathurst) [9.26 p.m.]: I support the bill and I welcome the contributions from the Opposition, particularly from the shadow spokesman for agriculture, the honourable member for Barwon. It is good to see that we have bipartisan support for the bill. As the Minister has outlined, the proposal is to tighten the disciplinary powers over veterinary surgeons where serious misconduct, such as the careless prescription of anabolic steroids, is alleged, so that a swift response can be made to such concerns, particularly during the 2000 Olympic Games. This is another by-product from the pressure of the 2000 Olympics.
The bill will enable the Board of Veterinary Surgeons to operate its administrative functions independently of government at a time of the intended relocation of the administrative services of the board from Orange to Sydney. Normally I would oppose anything that was taking jobs from the regions back to the city, but it can be argued in this case that there are very good reasons for this step. The board's administrative staff have traditionally been located at the headquarters of New South Wales Agriculture in Orange. That was convenient because the staff of the board were public servants and, until recently, the president of the board was a senior veterinary officer with New South Wales Agriculture.
When the headquarters of New South Agriculture were relocated to Orange in 1991—and I give the Coalition a pat on the back for that move, it was a major decentralisation move—the staff of the board were relocated as well. However, this week the board has relocated to premises at Randwick. The reason for this move was to improve accessibility of the board's staff to the profession. The majority of the 2,350 registered veterinary surgeons in New South Wales reside in the Sydney metropolitan area. That may come as a surprise to some people. Having the registrar of the board situated in Sydney, the majority of veterinary surgeons can now more easily consult the registrar in person or by a local phone call. The registrar is responsible for the annual renewal of registrations, as well as the licensing of hospitals and clinics. The president of the board is now a private veterinary surgeon, so the need to be located near the head office of New South Agriculture is not as important.
The board, the Veterinary Surgeons Investigatory Committee and the Administrative Decisions Tribunal have continued to meet in Sydney despite the location of the board's administrative staff in Orange. This arrangement was to suit the convenience of the majority of members, who resided in Sydney. It was also more centrally located for those who had to travel to meetings. Importantly, only two staff were employed at Orange, and I am pleased to see that those two individuals remain in Orange as employees of New South Wales Agriculture. So, from that point of view Orange has not suffered any net loss of employment. A new registrar has been employed in Sydney. Other operational matters relating to the office make the advantages of the relocation fairly clear.
As I said, one reason for the change is the 2000 Olympic Games. As part of the lead-up to the Olympic Games the Agricultural and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand considered the Commonwealth strategy known as "Tough on Drugs in Sport—Australia's Anti-Drugs in Sports Strategy—2000 and Beyond". Members of the council agreed to examine opportunities within their own jurisdictions to tighten drug controls. Honourable members will remember that the discredited Canadian athlete Ben Johnson put the focus on drugs in sport in a big way at the Seoul Olympics. It is important in Sydney and, indeed, in Australia to ensure that the 2000 Olympics are drug-free. There is a direct correlation between veterinary surgeons and the Olympics. The anabolic steroids veterinarians handle can be used by humans, so there is a need to tighten up control procedures and stiffen the penalties. And the penalties will certainly be severe.
It is proposed to tighten professional standards and disciplinary action to ensure that veterinary surgeons do not deliberately or unwittingly supply these drugs to humans or animals during the Olympic Games. As I said, with the world focus on Sydney it is imperative that the Government do everything to ensure that the Sydney Olympic Games are clean and credible, and having the industry seen in that light will be a great advantage. It is proposed that veterinary surgeons against whom serious allegations of professional misconduct are made, such as drug misuse, can have their registration as a veterinary surgeon suspended pending the hearing of the complaint. An appeal to the Administrative Decisions Tribunal will be available in relation to such a decision.
Also, there has been a recent influx of foreign veterinary surgeons seeking registration in New South Wales. The Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition (New South Wales) Act allows for automatic registration of those persons if they have first obtained registration in New Zealand. The concern is that currently there is no effective power to place conditions on the right of the new registrants to practise, and under this bill it is proposed that they be subject to such conditions as having to attend courses in relation to New South Wales poisons legislation to ensure that they are aware of their responsibilities.
Other related amendments will enable the Board of Veterinary Surgeons to lay a complaint against a veterinary surgeon immediately it becomes aware of an allegation of professional misconduct. Clarification is required that the Veterinary Surgeons Investigating Committee can delegate the task of investigations of complaints to inspectorial staff, and failure on the part of a registered veterinary surgeon to answer a summons to appear before the Veterinary Surgeons Investigating Committee will be an act of professional misconduct. Obviously, that will have serious implications for anyone who transgresses in that way. For the reasons I have outlined, and the reasons outlined by the Minister and Opposition members, I believe that this bill is important and timely, and I support it.
Mr FRASER (Coffs Harbour) [9.33 p.m.]: I support this bill. In doing so I recognise the service not only to the Coffs Harbour community but also to the veterinary industry in New South Wales of Dr Garth McGilvray from the Park Avenue Veterinary Clinic. For many years he has given selflessly of his time in terms of service to many charitable organisations in Coffs Harbour, and he is the veterinarian to the Coffs Harbour racecourse. He is also on the Board of Veterinary Surgeons as it currently exists. Recently he returned from Paris, where he attended a conference which examined animal husbandry matters across the board. Garth is coming to Sydney this week. When I saw him on the plane he mentioned that this bill would be debated this week. He said that he and other veterinary surgeons were pleased to see this bill come forward in its present form.
Garth indicated that in the past when a veterinary surgeon erred in any way, shape or form, if it was a criminal matter it could take three or four years before it got to court. When the matter finally got to court the record showed that he was still practising although he had erred once some years ago, and more often than not no action would be taken on the basis that his record showed that he was on remand for three or four years. Under this bill the board will be able to investigate circumstances and suspend a veterinary surgeon from practice, or impose conditions on the registration of a veterinary surgeon.
The Board of Veterinary Surgeons and veterinary surgeons who respect their profession see this bill as a great advantage to maintaining their integrity and the reputation of veterinarians in New South Wales in years to come. The bill will give them a handle on their own profession; it will give them an opportunity to discipline a veterinary surgeon, and do so quickly. If there are instances of steroids being supplied, if it is a matter that could be construed as being of a criminal nature, or if a matter has brought ill-repute on the profession, the board could handle it swiftly, with the support of the legislation. I complement the Minister. I commend Garth McGilvray for his great service to the Coffs Harbour community, New South Wales and Australia generally and for his work not only in New South Wales and Australia but also overseas to maintain the integrity of his profession.
Mr ANDERSON (Londonderry) [9.36 p.m.]: I support the proposed amendments to the Veterinary Surgeons Act. When the Minister brought forward the Veterinary Surgeons Amendment Bill in 1995 he foreshadowed that there would be significant changes to the Act to bring it into line with more contemporary matters such as accountability. The proposal is to tighten certain disciplinary powers over veterinary surgeons for serious misconduct, such as an allegation of careless prescription of anabolic steroids, and to ensure that there is a swift response to any of these concerns, particularly in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. It will also enable the Board of Veterinary Surgeons to operate its administrative functions independently of government.
In time it is intended to relocate its administrative services from Orange to Sydney. The two events which have instigated these proposals are the lead-up to the Olympic Games and the board's decision that it would be best served and would better serve the public by relocating to Sydney. As part of the lead-up to the Olympic Games the Agricultural and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand considered the Commonwealth strategy known as "Tough on Drugs in Sport—Australia's Anti-Drugs in Sport Strategy—2000 and Beyond". The members of the council agreed to examine opportunities within their own jurisdictions to tighten drug controls.
It is proposed to tighten professional standards and instigate disciplinary action to ensure that veterinary surgeons do not deliberately or unwittingly supply drugs to humans or animals during the Olympic Games. It is proposed that veterinary surgeons against whom serious allegations of professional misconduct are made, such as drug misuse, can have their registration as a veterinary surgeon suspended pending the hearing of the complaint. For the protection of veterinary surgeons, they will have the right to appeal to the Administrative Decisions Tribunal should such an assertion be made or such a suspension implemented.
There has been a recent influx of foreign veterinary surgeons seeking registration in New South Wales. The Trans Tasman Mutual Recognition Act allows for automatic registration of those persons if they have first obtained registration in New Zealand. The concern is that there is currently no effective power to place conditions on the right to practise of these new registrants and it is proposed that they be subject to such conditions as having to attend courses in relation to New South Wales poisons legislation, to ensure that they are aware of their responsibilities.
Other related amendments will enable the Board of Veterinary Surgeons to itself lay a complaint against a veterinary surgeon immediately the board becomes aware of an allegation of professional misconduct. Clarification is required that the Veterinary Surgeons Investigating Committee can delegate the task of investigations of complaints to inspectorial staff. Failure on the part of a registered veterinary surgeon to answer a summons to appear before the Veterinary Surgeons Investigating Committee is to be seen as an act of professional misconduct.
In relation to the decision of the Board of Veterinary Surgeons to move its administrative offices to Sydney, it is required that all references to public servants having to perform particular duties be removed. For example, the staff employed by the board presently must be employed under the Public Sector Management Act. With its move out of the control of the Department of Agriculture, it is no longer appropriate that the Government have any responsibilities towards the staff. The Act also requires that the board maintain a particular account. The board will continue to be subject to the Public Finance and Audit Act, so it is not a requirement that the Act designate how it controls its finances. The regulation-making power of the Act requires extension to allow for the board to impose additional charges on veterinary surgeons to ensure that it can maintain its self-funding status. I support the proposed amendments.
Ms HARRISON (Parramatta) [9.42 p.m.]: I support the changes in the Veterinary Surgeons Amendment Bill, as introduced to this House by the Minister for Agriculture, and Minister for Land and Water Conservation. The bill has two main objectives. The first of those objectives is to assist the Board of Veterinary Surgeons in relocating its administration from Orange to Sydney. In answer to an earlier interjection, we do have animals in Parramatta. The second objective of the bill is to tighten the disciplinary measures in the Act. In following my colleagues the members representing the electorates of Bathurst and Londonderry, I would like to speak to the second objective of the bill because I believe it has important ramifications for the way the professional body which disciplines our veterinary surgeons deals with the matter of the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs.
As honourable members would be aware, the use of performance-enhancing drugs amongst both recreational users and professional sportsmen and women is something that sports administrators and the sports-loving public have combated four years. The idea that the achievement of an athlete is enhanced by the use of a synthetic drug which boosts his or her performance or strength is repugnant, illegal and a possible threat to the health and wellbeing of the individuals involved. When Sydney hosts the Olympic Games in September, with more than 10,000 athletes from all around the world, the Australian public will want to know that the achievements of those men and women have been the result of their hard work, training and dedication over many years. The Australian public will expect that all of our public institutions and authorities have done everything within their power to ensure that our athletes and officials operate in an environment that ensures, to the extent possible, that the supply of illegal performance-enhancing drugs is curtailed. This includes ensuring that the many different sources of that supply are, where possible, restricted and, in the event of illegal activity, dealt with appropriately by the professional body concerned.
The Veterinary Surgeons Amendment Bill is intended, in part, to achieve just those aims and objectives by making the disciplinary actions against any veterinary surgeons—that is, enforcing professional standards under the Veterinary Surgeons Act—the job of the Veterinary Surgeons Investigating Committee. As the Minister said in his second reading speech, the primary function of the investigating committee is to investigate complaints made by members of the public against veterinary surgeons. It is imperative that this investigation and the appropriate response by the investigating committee be done in a timely fashion. At present this process, from investigation to appropriate disciplinary action, can be strung out over a number of years, during which time the veterinary surgeons concerned may be able to continue to practise.
As I have already said, it is claimed that veterinary surgeons are allowing addictive and performance-enhancing drugs to find their way into the hands of others who use them for other than their intended use, and that gives rise to this bill. When such an action is uncovered, however rare the event may be, it is critical that there be an appropriate power to act against the person or persons involved. Where there is such a serious complaint involving serious misconduct in a professional respect, the bill provides a mechanism whereby the veterinary surgeon can be suspended from practice or have his or her right to practise limited in some way until the allegation has been thoroughly investigated.
It is important to reiterate that this power will only be used in the most serious circumstances, where the misconduct involves a threat to the health and safety of any person or animal or the international reputation of Australia regarding animal exports, animal welfare or sporting events. It is timely that this Parliament is debating the bill at this time to enable the investigating committee to carry out its responsibilities in a professional and prompt manner. It also allows an appropriate appeals mechanism to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and mirrors certain provisions of the Medical Practice Act 1992. As the Minister has made clear to the House, the bill is about making the veterinary profession both independent and accountable to the community at large. It is about ensuring that the appropriate disciplinary structure is in place for the investigating committee to apply accepted professional standards to protect the good name that the vast majority of veterinary surgeons in New South Wales enjoy. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr AMERY (Mount Druitt—Minister for Agriculture, and Minister for Land and Water Conservation) [9.46 p.m.], in reply: Firstly I thank the honourable member for Barwon, the shadow Minister for Agriculture, and members representing the electorates of Bathurst, Coffs Harbour, Londonderry and Parramatta for their contributions to the debate and their general support for the legislation. The general tenor of the debate has been that, although this legislation is not about addressing any concerns or shortcomings in the policing of the inappropriate use of drugs during the Olympic Games, this year the world's focus will be on all States of Australia, the tough-on-drugs strategy of ARMCANZ, and our legislative back-up. Our ability to deal with any inappropriate activities by veterinary officers and others will come under international scrutiny. I do not envisage that this bill will ever need to be invoked. However, with the stringent supervision of the Olympic Games people, I could not imagine any athletes thinking they could use any of these substances and get away with it. Generally speaking, the ARMCANZ process and the Council of Australian Governments has brought in these minimum requirements and the ability to act swiftly in cases involving the inappropriate use of steroid prescriptions.
The honourable member for Bathurst raised the decentralisation issue referred to in my second reading speech. This is one of those rare occasions in which a government organisation will move from the country to the city. The honourable member referred to the decentralisation of New South Wales Agriculture and other aspects of that organisation. I assure him and the House that whilst the Veterinary Surgeons Board is in effect moving from Orange to Sydney, as I indicated in my second reading speech, it does not involve the transfer of any employees. I can advise the House—I am sure the honourable member for Bathurst will be keen to hear this—that only two persons were employed by the board in Orange and those persons have remained in Orange. In other words, they will not be transferred to Sydney but will remain employees of New South Wales Agriculture. As part of the fundamental changes through the legislation, new staff will be employed in Sydney. In other words, staff will not the moved from the country to the city; only the entity itself will be relocated.
The honourable member for Barwon pointed out, and rightly so, that the bill seeks to introduce legislative reform to crack down on any sort of inappropriate activity. He pointed out, correctly, that this applies to a great minority of veterinary officers. It is important to note that whilst this bill is about policing, and cracking down on, investigating and cancelling such operations, we recognise that the veterinary profession and the people involved in it are an extremely honourable group of people who perform dedicated work not only in metropolitan areas but throughout country New South Wales and that they play a very important part in the animal health strategy of the department, the Rural Lands Protection Board, private operators, and so on. The point mentioned by the honourable member for Barwon is an important one.
Many representations have been made to me in relation to this bill. The honourable member for Lachlan did not make a representation as much as a claim. The only public comment he made on the legislation was a claim that the bill still contains a loophole in relation to the sale of some steroids. He referred to that loophole following the introduction of this bill into the House last week. He claimed in a press release, which received some media coverage, that a steroid which is designed to combat sheath rot—what is otherwise known as pizzle rot in sheep—can still be accessed in many country trading stores across the State. The State Government is cracking down on veterinary surgeons who are accused of abusing their powers by supplying steroids. The bill enables the Veterinary Surgeons Board to suspend veterinarians from practice while an investigation is carried out.
Those measures do not apply to steroids that combat sheath rot for the very simple reason that the sale, as I understand it, is covered by the Stock Medicines Act. Under the Stock Medicines Act, a trader must be convinced that the purchaser of a steroid will use it for the correct purpose, that is, to combat sheath rot. The onus of proof is borne by the trader and if allegations are made that the trader is negligent in relation to the issue, New South Wales Agriculture has the power to prosecute the trader under the Stock Medicines Act. Clearly, there is no loophole in the bill because the sale of this particular chemical combatant is already controlled by existing legislation, in other words, the legislation to which I have already referred.
In caucus, a number of issues were raised that probably do not relate specifically to the nature of the legislation but generally to the way in which veterinarians are investigated. I received representations and a deputation from the honourable member for Liverpool, the honourable member for Menai and other honourable members to whom I have already referred in relation to complaints that have been dealt with by the board against certain veterinary officers. I understand this matter was raised by the honourable member for Liverpool in a private member's statement in this House. I assure honourable members and the House that although this legislation may not address the concerns to which I have referred specifically, I make the commitment that this bill is stage one in the review of the veterinary profession. I intend to introduce another bill in the spring session to address the National Competition Policy [NCP] review requirements, concerns regarding the transparency of the veterinary surgeons investigating committee and related matters.
In relation to matters raised by the honourable member for Liverpool and the honourable member for Menai, I make the point that while I intend to introduce legislation that actually cracks down on inappropriate practices adopted by veterinary officers, I will not in any way abuse or forget the principles of natural justice when applying this legislation to investigations of the type I have described. All honourable members who participated in the debate, particularly the honourable member for Parramatta, referred to the safeguards that are contained in the legislation, particularly in relation to appeals to the Administrative Decisions Tribunal. However, I understand that the concerns that have been raised may apply to aspects of investigation before an appeal is actually lodged.
I give a commitment to the House and to honourable members who have raised concerns in relation to this matter that those issues will be addressed. Discussions will be carried out during a further review of the profession and legislation. Those discussions will result in legislation being introduced towards the end of the year or as soon as is practicable. Having said that, I thank all honourable members for their participation in the debate. This is important legislation and it was very encouraging to hear general support from both sides of the House for the bill.
Motion agreed to.
Bill read a second time and passed through remaining stages.