Domestic Animals Amendment (Restricted Breed Dogs) Bill 2017
Wednesday, 6th September 2017
Debate resumed from 9 August; motion of Mr PAKULA (Attorney‑General).
Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I rise as the lead speaker for the Liberal‑Nationals on the Domestic Animals Amendment (Restricted Breed Dogs) Bill 2017. The legislation before the house implements the key recommendations from the 2016 parliamentary inquiry by the Economy and Infrastructure Committee into the legislative and regulatory framework relating to restricted breed dogs, specifically in relation to removing the prohibition on the registration and keeping of restricted breed dogs in Victoria. The bill proposed allows councils to register these dogs, subject to strict conditions around the housing and keeping of these dogs, and also includes related miscellaneous amendments to the Domestic Animals Act 1994.
There are five types of restricted breed dogs in Victoria. The only one which is prevalent is the pit bull terrier. The main provision of this legislation and the primary purpose before us is to replace the provision that currently disallows councils to register a restricted breed dog and to replace the provision to allow for its registration, the renewal of registration and the imposition of conditions on the registration or renewal of registration of a restricted breed dog. It also repeals the provisions that prohibit the keeping of a restricted breed dog and introduces some changes around the classification of a guard dog as a dangerous dog. Even after retirement a guard dog is still going to be considered a dangerous dog. The bill also makes some changes to the fees that are collected.
If you think about the Domestic Animals Act and the issue of restricted breeds, it is probably one of the most amended pieces of legislation in the history of the Victorian Parliament, particularly over the last 15 years or so. If you go back to the 2000 to 2006 term of the then Bracks government, minister Bob Cameron introduced legislation around the issue of restricted breeds and amended it a number of times. At that particular time it was mostly about the interstate trade of restricted breeds and desexing to stop the breeding of those dogs. I think at that time there was a view that the dogs would gradually be bred out over time.
That did not happen. In 2009, when John Brumby was Premier, there had been a particularly vicious attack by an American pit bull which killed a small dog and severely injured a man in an attack in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. At that time there was community outrage around dog attacks. John Brumby, as the Premier, indicated that he would be introducing legislation that went further than the current legislation. Joe Helper was the Minister for Agriculture at that particular time and had carriage of that legislation.
At that time RSPCA president Hugh Wirth, who was a very widely respected veterinarian and welfare advocate for animals, told the Age newspaper that pit bull dogs were:
… a menace and are not suitable as pets for anyone.
He actually said:
‘They are time bombs waiting for the right circumstances …
‘The American pit bull terrier is lethal because it was a breed that was developed purely for dog fighting, in other words killing the opposition.
‘They should never have been allowed into the country. They are an absolute menace.’
Joe Helper in that government actually introduced the legislation that we are effectively talking about today. It had an amnesty period of two years, when the owners of pit bull dogs were given notice that they had the opportunity over two years to register their dogs, have them desexed and house them appropriately. That legislation was working through its process over that particular time.
Tragically in 2011 there was a horrific event in Melbourne’s west, where four‑year‑old Ayen Chol was killed in her own home by a pit bull which had escaped from a neighbouring property and chased a number of children that were playing in the front yard of that house into the house. Ayen was sitting there, got attacked and was tragically killed. A number of other members of that family also got severely mauled by that particular dog. At that time Bill Shorten, the federal member for that area and now the opposition leader in Canberra, went on to actually write an opinion piece about that particular event. He started off:
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare — standing there helpless as a vicious dog — a shark on legs — attacks and kills your child.
Bill did go to visit the family and attend the funeral service for Ayen Chol. He went on to say in that article:
When I met the grieving family two days later one of their relatives came up to me and said: ‘In South Sudan, if a man’s dog kills another that man must answer for the murder of the victim’.
I think that is very pertinent to other changes that we made in the Crimes Act 1958 after that attack. I think everyone was horrified by the particular event. So we as a government, with myself as a minister at that particular time, actually introduced legislation to effectively and immediately end the moratorium to allow the registration of those dogs. The major change in that legislation at that time was to close it off at the end of September 2011 rather than running it through to the end of 2012.
That set off a chain of events. One of the issues around restricted breed dogs was always how you actually define a restricted breed dog. I know there was a lot of work done on what is the standard and how you actually determine what is a restricted breed dog — a pit bull versus what is a staffy or some other sort of dog. There was a lot of work done by the department and my local government on how you have a standard for those dogs, because it is very challenging to know which dog is actually a pit bull versus other breeds and crossbreeds. As I understand it, there is no DNA test that can actually determine that, which is what made it very challenging in developing that particular standard. But there was a standard developed to try and help councils and council by‑law officers do that.
When the legislation was introduced to end the moratorium, I can remember receiving a call from the now Premier, the then Leader of the Opposition, saying, ‘We are all appalled by what has happened with this dog attack, and we will support anything that is sensible and reasonable to make sure this does not happen in the future’. The member for Bendigo East at that particular time in the debate on 30 August 2011 said:
The opposition has previously indicated that it would support this bill, and we also support its expeditious passage through both houses of Parliament …
The member for Tarneit said something similar:
We commend the government and indicate from the outset that the opposition, as was indicated by the Leader of the Opposition and various speakers during the course of today, will be supporting the bill.
The member for Tarneit went on further to say:
The current amnesty provisions allow registration of a restricted breed dog until September 2012; the bill will cut back the amnesty period to 29 September 2011. We commend that — it is a good move.
In short and very plainly, the measures that have been brought forward are good ones.
So the amnesty period ended, and that set in place a chain of events where a number of people who had restricted breed dogs viewed that they should not have to register them. The dogs were being seized, councils were putting them in pounds and there were very long and expensive court cases for councils around those particular dogs.
What we are seeing here today is the result of the fact that it got very, very expensive. Some councils were spending up to $100 000 at VCAT to argue whether those particular dogs were restricted breeds or not and whether they should be put down. I do understand that people who own a particular dog love their dog and believe their dog will never do any harm, but there is an issue with having those sorts of dogs running loose in the community.
What we have in the bill before us today are the changes that were recommended by that parliamentary committee to allow for the registration of these dogs, to allow for the keeping of the dogs and to allow for the reregistration of the dogs, but it does not change any of the rules around ownership of those dogs. So if you own one of those dogs, you are now entitled to register it and have it reregistered, but it still has to be desexed; it still has to be housed appropriately — and there are now much stricter rules around the housing of those dogs compared to other dogs — it still has to have a special collar affixed so it can be identified, particularly when it is out in public; it has to be muzzled when it is out in public, as I understand it; and it has to be on a lead at all times when it is out.
All the changes to the legislation originally brought in by Joe Helper back in 2010 are still there. The only change this bill makes is to allow for those dogs to be registered and kept. The fact that they still need to be desexed is in line with the intent of the legislation that was originally introduced by Bob Cameron in that 2002 to 2006 parliamentary period. These dogs eventually should be bred out of existence because they will not be able to breed into the future.
At that particular time we as a government also gave a commitment to changing the Crimes Act 1958 and the Domestic Animals Act 1994 so that if a person owns a dangerous or restricted breed dog, they would be responsible for its actions. From memory, if a dog causes grievous injury, there is a maximum of five years jail for the owner of that dog as penalty for the offence that the dog committed, and if the dog actually kills someone, there is a maximum of 10 years jail for that particular offence. I know there was a lot of debate about it at the time, but I think it comes back to the issue that Bill Shorten addressed in his opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph. If someone’s dog commits an offence like that, the owner should be responsible for that dog and the grievous harm it causes.
When we debated that particular legislation Steve Herbert, the then member for Eltham, in his contribution said:
It is legislation that we on this side of the house support …
The member for Preston, who is actually at the table, said:
… I am sure every member of this house hopes that legislation brought to this Parliament to ensure the safety of the community is successful and is enforced.
I thank him for those particular comments.
One thing I did do when these issues were unfolding was go to the Royal Children’s Hospital to meet with plastic surgeons to get a better understanding of what happens with dog attacks. I think it is useful for the members of the house to realise that a dog attack actually tears. It does not just cut like when you cut your finger with a knife or like an industrial accident. It actually tears and, even worse, it actually infects. Think about what a dog eats. If a child is attacked, they get nasty tears, particularly if they are attacked in the facial area, and it gets infected. So it is a very serious injury.
When we were at the Children’s Hospital we met a couple with two young children, and one of those children had been attacked by a dog while in the pram. This child was so traumatised. It had received such substantial plastic surgery that you almost did not know it had been scarred. The plastic surgeons had done a very good job.
But the child was so traumatised by all dogs that the parents swore they would never own a dog because of what had happened when they were walking down the street. They actually had to buy a small dog to get the child used to having dogs around, otherwise every time they went down the street the child would effectively freak out if there was a dog nearby. It is a horrendously traumatic experience both physically and mentally for children in particular, and for anyone attacked by a dog.
This legislation now enables restricted breed dogs to be registered under very, very strict conditions, but people are still going to have to be responsible for their dogs. I know why the committee reported what it did, because the way these dogs used to be registered was effectively unworkable and very, very expensive for councils. At the end of the day these sorts of dogs should not be running around without a lead and muzzle, because if they do attack a child, it is effectively on the government that introduced these changes and the individual who owns that dog to be responsible for what happens.
I do not wish for any member of Parliament or for any minister to have to go through something like the tragic death of Ayen Chol and the trauma it caused that family. Let us hope this legislation is enforced, that it does actually work and that these dogs are bred out of existence over a period of time. It would be unfortunate if people tried to get around the law to continue breeding these dogs and we find ourselves back in this place in five or 10 years time following another tragic killing and looking at the legislation again.
This legislation also changes the amount of money the government takes from the registration of cats and dogs. Currently the government takes a small amount of money from the registration fees paid to local government. The change is that they will take an additional $1.50 from cat registrations and an additional 50 cents from dog registrations as of the registration period beginning April 2019. This means that for every cat and for every dog there will be $4 transferred to the state government from local government, which is approximately an additional $1.2 million each year. That will be used to help subsidise some responsible pet ownership programs.
There are some very good programs out there that are run in kindergartens for new mums and dads when they have a baby. They are about how you actually manage that in the home if you have a cat or a dog. We have all probably heard of examples where the family pet has been the centre of attention for a number of years and all of a sudden there is an infant in the household that is getting more attention than the pet. There is an excellent program about how you normalise that in the household. Another excellent program is run in kinders about being very careful, particularly around dogs, over that time.
I suppose in some ways this is another new tax by the Andrews government. It is an increase in tax, which they promised not to do. If you remember back to the eve of the last election, the Premier was on the front steps of Parliament being interviewed by Peter Hitchener. He looked the camera in the eye —
Mr Katos — It was Peter Mitchell.
Mr WALSH — It was Peter Mitchell, was it? Sorry, I stand corrected. I thank the member for South Barwon. He looked down the camera and said he promised all Victorians there would be no tax increases and there would be no new taxes in Victoria. We now know there have been 11 new taxes, and this one is a tax increase on the amount of money that is taken out of fees for dogs and cats in the future.
Yes, I do understand why we have to have this legislation. It is unfortunate that there could not be a way found to actually truly identify what is a pit bull dog and make sure they were bred out of existence here in Victoria. I hope that this actually works and, as I said before, that we do not find ourselves back here in five or 10 years time dealing with an absolute tragedy where another child has been killed by one of these dogs.
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