A chat with…Dr Charles Milne, Victoria’s Chief Veterinary Officer

Dr Charles Milne has been the Victorian Government’s chief vet since 2014. It’s a critically important job, one that has an impact on all Victorians, but the first question that most people ask is: what does he actually do?

Here's a snapshot:

  • Led responses to anthrax in Goulburn Valley and Swan Hill; Victorian cattle exposure to Bluetongue virus; and pastures contaminated with firefighting foams. "These incidents illustrate the need for effective biosecurity, through adherence to import requirements or banning feeding waste food to livestock."
  • Led the review of Victoria’s Greyhound industry following the media exposure of incidents of live baiting. "I’ve acted as the minister’s delegate to authorise seizures of animals in cases where welfare has been compromised."
  • Was part of the team that introduced electronic identification of sheep in Victoria. "This will improve traceability and the ability to respond more rapidly to disease incursions or food safety issues."
  • Chairs the Animal Health Committee, the national committee of chief veterinary officers. “Its current priorities are surveillance and traceability – two issues close to my heart."

There’s plenty more besides, in a role that’s at the frontline of biosecurity.

"I’m immensely fortunate to do a job that I love that enables me to make a real difference to people’s lives," says Charles. "Nowhere is this more pertinent than in responding to disease outbreaks where the economic and social consequences can be profound."

And he’s had plenty of experience with that.

Charles became Scotland’s Chief Veterinary Officer in 2003 shortly after the devastating Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in the UK. In that position for six years, he managed several other significant disease outbreaks, including Bluetongue and Avian Influenza, and drove animal welfare legislative reform. Then, in 2009, he became Scotland’s Director for the Food Standards Agency, which involved managing a number of high profile incidents, including engagement with individuals who had lost family members to food poisoning.

Naturally, those tragedies hit home. "Experience has reinforced my understanding of the complexity of the incidents that we face in this field and the very real human outcomes that result," he reflects. "Effective responses can only be mounted if there are robust surveillance and traceability systems in place."

With the benefit of lived experience, Charles is well placed to assess Victoria’s key strengths in animal management, particularly when compared to those of the UK. "Coming from a country that has a climate that requires farmed stock to be housed for up to six months a year, the benefits of the pastoral and low input farming here in Victoria where animals can graze all year round are obvious," he says.

"That – and the geographical isolation that enables Australia to maintain freedom from major animal diseases – results in Australia’s reputation as a ‘safe’ market. This market difference underpins the premium markets we enjoy, as we cannot compete at a commodity level. It’s important we don’t take our reputation for granted and that we work hard to maintain this position in the face of numerous challenges including climate change, trade globalisation and increased travel."

"Another standout strength is leadership shown by Victoria in animal production – for example, with the introduction of electronic tagging of sheep and the exceptional emergency management arrangements in place that would bring tremendous benefits in an animal disease emergency."

And what about 10 years from now, what type of job would he like to be doing then?

"Working in the livestock sector in non-executive roles, continuing to broaden my understanding of the complexities of this important production chain."

Which is to say he’s staying in the field – which is where I’m sure all of us would want him to be.

Footnote: Dr Charles Milne has since left the Department of Jobs, Precincts & Regions, departing in May.  A search is underway for his replacement.