I am pleased to stand here today to make a contribution to debate on the Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015, because this amendment is an election commitment that the Labor Party took to the last state election. It is also with great pride that I am making a contribution that reinforces the delivery of that election commitment before the house this afternoon.
Over the last two weeks I have had the opportunity to have a look at Hansard and read what people had to say about this bill in the other place. It was very clear from those contributions that people had lots of stories to tell about their direct and personal experiences in pet ownership. They had a lifetime of memories, many of which were extremely happy. The member for Yuroke in the Assembly spoke of her dog, Hera, who was an American pit bull terrier, a breed which is deemed restricted under the legislation we are amending today. It is a breed that would be destroyed under that legislation. Whilst I was not able to hear Ms Spence’s contribution in the Assembly, it is clear from Hansard that the issues we are dealing with today can be very emotional for thousands of people, in particular pet owners in this state.
The bill concerns sections 84P(a) and (b) of the Domestic Animals Act 1994, which specifically deals with the destruction of a dog based purely on its breed. We are not dealing with parts of the act relating to the destruction of the dog because that dog had attacked a person or indeed livestock. The act of destroying a dog based purely on its breed has resulted in a number of issues being raised by a whole range of different stakeholders, which I will outline later. These issues must be investigated and ironed out.
In the past, both in Victoria and other states, legislation has passed in response to specific dog attacks that have occurred in relation to a specific breed. I note that the Leader of The Nationals — the member for Murray Plains in the other place — stated in his contribution that he believes this is one of the most amended pieces of legislation in the Parliament. I am not sure whether that is the case, but I will say it is time for Parliament to take a holistic approach to this issue and examine the causes of dog attacks and the legislative framework that must be put in place to limit dog attacks.
The bill establishes a moratorium on the destruction of restricted breed dogs until a joint parliamentary committee can report on an inquiry conducted on this issue. I agree with Mr Barber in that I do not want to pre-empt the debate and discussion that will go on with respect to the proposed joint parliamentary inquiry, but this action symbolises the approach this government has generally in respect of this issue. The moratorium will provide sufficient time for the committee to report recommendations and for the government to consider those. It is proposed that the joint parliamentary committee report to the Parliament by 30 September this year and that the moratorium stay in place until September 2016. The joint committee will be bipartisan in nature, and all its members will be charged with ensuring that community safety is the absolute priority of the committee’s work. We need to get the balance right on this issue, and the parliamentary inquiry is the first step towards that. It will give a number of stakeholder groups and organisations a chance to put forward their learned views and experiences, which is always a worthwhile exercise.
The stakeholders involved in this matter are many and varied, but I note that the Australian Veterinary Association says banning particular breeds does nothing to address aggression in dogs or increase community safety. This view is shared by the RSPCA, which states that any dog of any size, breed or mix of breeds may be dangerous, and thus dogs should not be declared dangerous on the basis of breed or appearance. The RSPCA offers a number of strategies to reduce the incidence of dog attacks, including: firstly, the registration and microchipping of all dogs so that all are traceable by their owners — and on that point it must be said that legislation on destroying particular breeds increases the risk of underground breeding, whereby no owners of these dogs will register or microchip; control of unrestrained and free-roaming animals; desexing of non-breeding male and female dogs, which lowers the risk of aggression in male dogs and lowers the risk of male dogs being attracted entirely to female dogs; education of the public, particularly children, on safety around dogs; training dogs as well as owners; and of course the socialisation of dogs with people and other animals.
Each of these points relates to the involvement of the dog owner. It is clear that the role of the dog owner and the environment in which the dog is raised, rather than the specific breed of the dog, are paramount in determining whether a dog will be aggressive or not. I am also aware that the statistics on dog attack have not decreased since breed specific legislation was introduced and that there is no research that supports the notion that it does. I look forward to reading the submissions made by these well-respected and well-informed organisations, along with others such as breed experts, individual dog owners and individuals who have been involved in this area, as well as individuals who have been attacked by dogs in the past.
The inquiry will also give local councils an opportunity to speak about their responsibilities and experiences in this area. Under the existing legislation, local councils have the right and responsibility to seize unregistered restricted breed dogs from their owners. In turn, those owners also have the right to challenge that decision through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. This has led to a number of cases where local councils have had to pay legal costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in dealing with the matter, and a number of cases have resulted in dogs being returned to their owners.
The other issue about which I have become aware concerns the definition of a restricted breed. This causes particular pragmatic problems for animal control officers, who need to have confidence to enforce laws in respect of the act they work under. The definition as it stands at the moment in relation to an American pit bull terrier is: a dogo Argentino or Argentinian fighting dog; a fila Brasileiro or Brazilian fighting dog; a Japanese tosa; or a perro de presa Canario. There is clearly a problem in the definition in that the words ‘a dog that appears to be’ makes it very difficult to determine whether a dog is in fact of a restricted breed or not.
It is not hard to imagine the level of distress a family would be feeling when told their beloved pet is being taken away from them to be destroyed, especially when it is on the basis that their pet simply looks like a dangerous breed, whereas in most cases the dog is an integral part of the family and has never hurt or shown aggression towards anyone. There are clearly issues that need to be resolved with regard to dangerous dogs in our community. This government is looking for a way to deliver the best possible policy and solutions for limiting dog attacks and keeping our community safer. We believe the proposed enquiry will provide recommendations as to the best possible legislative framework going forward, and that is what is needed. Therefore I commend the bill to the house.