Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015

16 April 2015

16 April 2015

RYAN (Euroa) — It is lovely to see you in the chair, Acting Speaker. It is a pleasure to rise today and speak about the Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015. The purpose of the bill is to place a moratorium on the destruction of restricted breed dogs until 30 September 2016. It is the government's intention that a joint investigatory committee will report to Parliament on the current arrangements, benefits and challenges of legislative provisions for restricted breed dogs.

The agriculture portfolio deals with wide and varied topics, and it says something about the priorities of the government that one of the first issues sought to be dealt with by the Minister for Agriculture is one that does nothing for food producers. Other issues that I would have thought were more important within the agricultural portfolio include funding for wild dogs and the government's cuts to the aerial baiting program this autumn or the wild dog bounty or even reinstating funding to help local government deal with roadside weeds and pests that impact on landholders. They are worthy issues within the agriculture portfolio that I would have thought the government would be seeking to address. I would also have thought it would have been a priority of the minister to protect the rights of food producers who rely on irrigation water. It is deeply concerning to my constituents that Labor is reopening the door to the use of irrigation water, which is currently used for productive purposes by our state's farmers, for other purposes.

It is instructive to outline the history that has given rise to this amendment. The current legislation is designed to protect communities from potential dog attacks. In 2001 Labor established restricted breed legislation, declaring particular breeds restricted in line with commonwealth legislation. In 2010 the then Minister for Agriculture, Joe Helper, introduced further amendments to give councils the power to control and destroy dogs that were considered a danger to the community. At the time the minister said that the intention of the legislation was to address community needs and expectations over serious dog attacks, and responsible dog ownership and education. Therefore it is worth noting that it is Labor's legislation that the government is now seeking to amend.

The legislation introduced in 2010 allowed for a standard to be prescribed to assist with identifying dogs regarded as being of a restricted breed. That standard did exist when the coalition came to government, and although we made some changes to that standard, the substantive part of all of that legislation existed, so Labor is seeking to amend its own legislation. As a result of that standard, if a dog fits within the definition of a restricted breed dog, irrespective of whether or not it is a crossbreed, it is subject to particular conditions. The 2010 bill also established an amnesty whereby owners of restricted breed dogs were given two years to register with their local council, which was by September 2012.

In August 2011 I was working for the then Minister of Agriculture, the member for Murray Plains, and a very tragic situation occurred where Ayen Chol, a four-year-old girl, was mauled to death by a pit bull terrier in St Albans. It was an absolutely tragic case, and I will always remember exactly where I was on that morning when I read the news and realised what had happened. There was a subsequent coroner's investigation into the death of Ayen Chol, and the coroner heard that the dog that attacked her had always been obedient. It had not shown signs of aggression or any indication that it could react like that. I distinctly remember the then Leader of the Opposition and now Premier saying at the time that he would support any measures that the government felt were necessary to reduce the threat of these dogs, in particular pit bulls, in the community. The coalition therefore moved very quickly, following the death of Ayen Chol, and closed the amnesty in September of that year. We gave restricted breed dog owners 30 days to register their dogs with councils and the animals were to be seized and destroyed if they were not registered.

Dogs registered as being of a restricted breed must be kept under very strict conditions. They must be desexed and microchipped, and they must wear a prescribed collar, which from memory is a red and yellow-striped collar. The property where they are housed must have appropriate warning signs, and they must be housed in an enclosure from which they cannot escape. They must also be restrained with a muzzle and on a leash when exercised off the property. Importantly, ownership of a restricted breed dog cannot be transferred.

Following the death of Ayen Chol, the coalition also introduced changes to the Crimes Act 1958 to increase penalties for people whose dogs attack somebody. Owners who are in that situation are now subject to criminal offences not only if their dog kills someone but also if it endangers someone's life. Owners can be jailed for up to 10 years if their dog kills somebody or 5 years if it endangers somebody's life. We also created a new offence for breeding restricted breed dogs, and that was an important move to tighten the law in response to the coroner's recommendations. It is now a criminal offence for any person, whether or not they are the owner, to breed a restricted breed dog.

I do not think there is any dispute on either side of the house about whether pit bulls should be in the community; it is a question of how the ones we have are best managed. This is very difficult legislation, but first and foremost I think it is the responsibility of this house to protect the community. I would be very concerned if the bill were used in any way by the government and the subsequent committee inquiry to water down those protections that have been put in place. I have consulted with a number of my local councils on this bill, and they have given me feedback which I think is certainly worth noting. They feel the constant review of the legislation has increased the burden for councils and other agencies and their resources, and as a result of the legislation they have now been left in limbo while they await the findings of the parliamentary committee in 18 months.

In particular the Strathbogie Shire Council does not have appropriate facilities for holding animals for 18 months while this inquiry deliberates, which means that it and other councils like it could be forced to fork out for building new facilities at great cost or alternatively to look at commercial boarding kennel options. Local experts have told me that such options would come at great expense to local governments as they would be forced to pay a premium rate to a commercial facility because of the special needs and risks of keeping a dog. Worse still, the change could deter councils from picking up these dogs because they would not want to bear the cost of keeping a dog for 18 months. There are some significant concerns.

In conclusion, as I said earlier, The Nationals will not be opposing this bill, but we will carefully monitor the impacts of this legislation particularly on councils in relation to those concerns I have previously mentioned. I reinforce that I believe the primary motivation for changing any legislation in future and for the parliamentary committee in its findings must be the protection of human life.

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