Domestic Animal Amendment Bill 2015
15 April 2015
I rise to lead the debate for the coalition on the Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015. The purpose of this bill is to introduce a moratorium on the destruction of restricted breed dogs in certain circumstances. The bill will put that moratorium in place until 30 September 2016 while a joint investigatory committee of Parliament investigates the best way to manage these dogs in the future. That committee is supposed to report to the Parliament by 30 September 2015.
When we had the bill briefing from the minister’s office and the department, one of the things we were given a commitment about was that we would get a copy of the terms of reference for the inquiry and we would get the name of the committee the reference is going to be given to. Unfortunately the minister has not seen fit to provide those terms of reference or the name of the committee they are going to be given to. I think that is unfortunate, because when you attend bill briefings you take it on face value that you are going to be told what is going to happen and that related commitments will be honoured. In this case those commitments have not been honoured. I must admit I am disappointed in that. One of the trusts in this place is that through the legislative process we take people at face value and at their word, believing they will deliver. That has not happened, as I have said, in this case.
It is interesting to look at the issue of restricted breed dogs. Having been the responsible minister at one stage and having been in this place for a number of years, I can say this is probably one of the most amended pieces of legislation to be introduced into the Parliament. It had its start in September 1994 when the Honourable Bill McGrath was the Minister for Agriculture. He introduced a new principal act to replace the Dogs Act 1970. In his second‑reading speech on the Domestic (Feral and Nuisance) Animals Bill, he set out the provisions in the bill, but the most important thing he said was that:
The bill adopts a middle‑of‑the‑road position that addresses the concerns of the community relating to nuisance animals, attacks by dangerous dogs and damage to the environment while simultaneously protecting the rights of animal owners.
That aspect of the legislation has been quite emotive. It is why a lot of people take an interest in and have very strong views on this legislation — because people love and get very attached to their pets. They are a very important part of people’s lives and particularly of people who live on their own. The legislation that Bill McGrath introduced put in place a registration process for cats and dogs that had not existed in the past. It was set up to be cost neutral to the government. A fee was to be paid to local government to register cats and dogs. The legislation also put in place a process for the registration of domestic animal businesses, and that has been a contentious issue at various times.
Some of the money that was raised through cat and dog registration fees was to be forwarded to the government to fund educational programs for responsible pet ownership, covering both cats and dogs. The educational programs are still there and are very important. We are Family is for people who are expecting their first child. They can go to classes to learn how to manage a pet in a household where there is a baby. Quite often a pet becomes jealous of a baby when it comes into the house. The pet has been the centre of attention in that household, and when a baby comes along there is an associated risk, particularly if the pet is a dog, as to how it will handle the newcomer to the house. The program gives families an opportunity to learn how to manage a pet in a household with a newborn baby. There is also a kindergarten program to teach families and young children how to react to dogs other than the family dog, such as those encountered in a public space.
The principal act was not amended from 1994 through to the year 2000, when the Honourable Keith Hamilton was the responsible minister. He introduced a number of amendments to the legislation, particularly around the issue of cats and dogs on private property without permission. He also put in place legislation in regard to dangerous dogs, which is an aspect of the legislation that is quite often muddled up. There are three specific definitions for dangerous dogs. One is a ‘dangerous dog’, which is a dog that has attacked and injured someone.
The next is a ‘restricted breed dog’, the definition for which was not introduced until later on, and the third is a ‘menacing dog’, which definition was also introduced later in the process. A menacing dog is a dog that has rushed at someone but has not caused serious injury. Keith Hamilton put in place some additional powers for councils to seize dogs that had been involved in attacks on private residences along with procedures for the recovery of seized animals and how councils would deal with dogs and cats in public places. As part of that there would be a 12‑month period for a further review and further potential legislative changes.
In November 2001 the legislation came back to this place for further amendment, and a limit was put in place so that a person could own only two restricted breed dogs. Prior to that there had not been any restriction on the number of restricted breed dogs people could own. A restriction was put in place so that a person could own only two restricted breed dogs unless they had a permit for more. Also put in place were some definitions for the housing requirements for restricted breed dogs. Prior to that there had not been a definition of what was required to enclose those dogs.
The legislation also put in place rules around warning signs on properties where there were restricted breed dogs and permanently identifying those dogs along with a process of notification when those dogs changed ownership or when they were relocated to a different local government area. One of the challenges was that quite often people traded the dogs or moved them around. If there was a risk of them being caught with one of the dogs, they would move it to another local government area or sell it to someone else so it would not be seized. A process was put in place to monitor such changes and to look at potential greater changes in the future for restricted breed dogs, particularly in relation to putting in place compulsory desexing.
Wind forward to 2003 when the Honourable Bob Cameron was the Minister for Agriculture: he introduced an omnibus bill with more changes around the issue of restricted breed dogs. That bill introduced ISO standard technology for the microchipping of the animals. The government also revised the minimum standard of regulations for enclosures for dangerous and restricted breed dogs. Previous legislation had put in place rules around enclosures; this legislation revised and strengthened the rules around those enclosure standards. Bob Cameron was a very busy minister; I think he reviewed the legislation annually, and in September 2004 another omnibus bill was introduced that covered restricted breed dogs in particular. It established a central regulatory database for dangerous, menacing and restricted breed dogs to better track changes of ownership and movement between local government areas, because there had been a number of databases for the keeping of such records.
The majority of people do the right thing with these dogs, but those who may want to break the law or those who may, for argument’s sake, run a drug processing establishment would have a number of the dogs running loose around the premises so that in effect they were guard dogs and no‑one could go into the premises. This legislation was about putting some good rules in place to deal with those situations.
In May 2005 Bob Cameron amended the legislation again with an omnibus bill that addressed the permanent identification of restricted breed dogs. The legislation also put in place the compulsory microchipping of menacing dogs, which is the definition I talked about before. It gave councils greater powers to dispose of seized dogs when the owners could not be identified. In September of that year the legislation was back before the house when finally the compulsory desexing of dangerous and restricted breed dogs was introduced. It put in place increased registration requirements, and, if a dog had not been desexed, from then on it could not be registered or reregistered. In some ways that drove some dogs underground. People shifted them to other locations because they did not want to have the dogs desexed. At the time there were also issues around putting restrictions on moving dogs between states because there was no point in having strict rules in Victoria if new dogs were going to be brought in from New South Wales or from overseas.
In October 2007 the Honourable Joe Helper, who was the then Minister for Agriculture, introduced legislation in this place to make further amendments around restricted breed dogs. I said before that there had been rules put in place where there was a limit of two dogs per owner, and there were further rules put in place, including a rule to limit the number of dogs to two per premises. If there were a number of people living at a particular premises, they might have a number of dogs, and this rule allowed for a maximum of two dogs per premise into the future. The amendments gave councils greater power to seize these types of dogs to get them off the street. If a council by‑laws officer or an authorised officer had a reasonable belief that a dog was of a restricted breed, that officer could seize the dog. A standard was developed whereby an authorised officer or by‑laws officer could consult a diagram of restricted breed dogs, and if the dog measured up to that standard, the officer could seize it.
In 2008 former Minister Helper made further amendments to the legislation and expanded the definition of a dog owner. Quite often when there was a dog attack or an issue with a dog the owner could say that someone else was in charge of the dog at the time. The amendment widened the definition of who was in control of the dog so that whether it be the owner or another person, that person was liable for any attacks by that particular dog. It dealt with the issue of people trying to abrogate their responsibility when a dog attacked and everyone denied liability for it.
In May 2010 further substantive change was introduced, which is what the legislation before the house is about. I will quote from Minister Helper’s second‑reading speech of that time:
As at January 2010 there were 335 restricted breed dogs declared in Victoria. However, microchip identification registry declarations by owners suggest that there are several times that number of this type of dog in the community that are registered as another almost identical breed or as a crossbreed of another breed. This means that these dogs are not being kept in accordance with the strict controls that apply to restricted breed dogs that may be kept under the act.
In order to better regulate restricted breed dogs, in place of the current prohibition, the bill provides for a two‑year amnesty period to allow owners to register restricted breed dogs and thereby bring them under the existing strict controls. The amnesty will only apply to dogs in Victoria immediately before the amnesty begins.
At that time a process was started, and I remind the house that these legislative changes introduced to make sure that society was safe from these sorts of dogs always had bipartisan support.
When I was a minister I visited the Royal Children’s Hospital to meet with some of the plastic surgeons who attend when a child is attacked by a dog. It is very traumatic for the child. People need to bear in mind that when a dog of this calibre attacks a child, they tear at the flesh, they do not actually cut. It is a very jagged and bruising wound, and, as dogs are meat eaters, there is a lot of infection. It is quite traumatic for the child, and it is also a long process for the plastic surgeons to make sure that those children fully recover. The amendments to the legislation meant it was illegal to breed the sorts of dogs in Victoria. They should have been desexed, and by rights they should have been phased out over time, but we now know that that did not happen. The legislation was introduced in early 2010 and was in place when we came to government. It was in place when I was a minister.
If we fast‑forward, members will remember that we had the tragic event of August 2011 where Ayen Chol, a young girl from St Albans, was tragically killed by one of those sorts of dogs in absolutely horrific circumstances.
Not only was the child killed but her mother and her mother’s sister were also seriously injured. When those sorts of things happen it is very important that both the government of the day and the Parliament of the day react. At that time the government had the support of the opposition. I put on the record that when I was the Minister for Agriculture the then Leader of the Opposition rang me and said, ‘Whatever support you need, we will be supportive within reason to make sure we do not see these sorts of things happen in the future’. The then Leader of the Opposition, now Premier, pledged Labor’s support to help further toughen laws and penalties. He said:
I don’t want to see any time wasted in the important efforts to deal with these dangerous animals and therefore protect children.
At that particular time legislation was introduced into this house that ended the earlier amnesty given so that people could register their dogs if those dogs had been in Victoria when the previous legislation was put in place. That amnesty ended on 30 September 2011. I thank the then Attorney‑General, the member for Box Hill, who worked very closely with me to make sure that we were able to make some changes to the Crimes Act 1958 as well as to the Domestic Animals Act 1994. We introduced changes to the Crimes Act so that if a restricted breed dog attacked and seriously injured someone, then its owner would face up to five years in gaol, and if the dog attacked someone and that person tragically was killed, then the owner could face up to 10 years in gaol — changes to the Crimes Act that saw severe penalties for people who did not control their dogs properly.
Since the time that amnesty ended a number of people have had their dogs seized by council by‑laws officers, some of whom have challenged the seizure of their dogs. Under the legislation those people have the right to challenge whether their dog is or is not a restricted breed dog. Once that process has been gone through people can appeal to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) about the matter, and if they are unsuccessful at VCAT, then they can appeal that decision to the Supreme Court. A number of people have gone through that process.
A group of lawyers do pro‑bono work for those people because they believe that restricted breed legislation is not the appropriate way to manage this problem. Some hold the view that it is about the deed not the breed. I am afraid that as a minister who was in the chair when Ayen Chol was killed, it is very hard for me to accept the view that we have to wait until a dog attacks and potentially kills someone before we act. That is not something I would ever want to be involved in in the future, because Ayen Chol’s death was a tragic time for her family and all those people connected with her.
We now have a situation where a number of dogs have been on what is colloquially known as death row at various times while they have awaited VCAT hearings or a Supreme Court case. Literally thousands of emails get floated during these times — about dogs named Kerser, Milo and Bobo — so a number of dogs have been in that particular circumstance.
The Minister for Agriculture has introduced an amnesty or a moratorium against the destruction of those dogs while a parliamentary inquiry is in progress about whether this is the best way to manage the legislation and the process that has been in place and whether that is the way to manage restricted breeds of dogs into the future. Again I put on the record that I am disappointed that the minister’s office did not come back with terms of reference and a referral to the relevant committee.
There are only a couple of clauses in the legislation, and opposition members are not opposing it. However, we raise one issue with the minister, which she may like to address in her summing up or which may be addressed during the bill’s consideration‑in‑detail stage in this house or during the committee stage in the upper house — that is, the issue of who bears the costs for holding these dogs in a pound. At the moment I think there is only one dog in a pound in this particular circumstance. My view is that if a dog is seized in the next couple of months, then it is potentially going to be held in a pound until September 2016, which will be a cost borne by local government. In some ways the legislation being introduced now will be a disincentive for local governments to go about doing what they should be doing with these sorts of dogs. People in local government will think twice, including by‑laws officers who have budgets to meet. They will think twice before going out and seizing a dog because they will have to pay — at this stage — the cost of that dog being in a pound until at least 30 September 2016. The committee is going to report on 30 September 2015.
I would like some clarification from the minister on who is going to bear those costs. I would have thought that given this is government legislation that is changing the rules for local government and will not involve a significant number of dogs — most of these dogs are being impounded in three or four of the city council pounds in Melbourne; the cities of Brimbank, Monash and Hume are the municipalities that probably have to seize most of these dogs — I believe it would be reasonable for the government to pay the cost of these dogs being put into a pound for the duration of the moratorium while the parliamentary committee does its work and while any potential changes to regulation or legislation are put in place post the report of that committee.
As I said, the opposition will not be opposing the legislation. I like to think I have given a reasonable potted history of this issue. It is a very vexed issue for anyone involved in a dog attack. It is a vexed issue for the council and the council officers involved who are doing their job in enforcing the laws of the land and protecting the people in their community from these sorts of dogs. I suggest that it would be good if the minister in her summing up made a commitment to reimburse councils for the cost of putting these dogs in a pound until the parliamentary committee report is finished and there are changes introduced when the moratorium ends on 30 September 2016.
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