Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015

Ms HUTCHINS (Minister for Local Government) — Thank you, Acting Speaker. Congratulations on your role in the hot seat of this house.

I am pleased to rise and speak in support of the Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015, yet another fantastic bill the Andrews government has introduced to fulfil its election commitments. Prior to the election we outlined our pledge to hold a parliamentary inquiry into breed-specific legislation and to make amendments to the principal act to do just that, which is what we are discussing today.

There has been much concern about this in the community. In my short time as the Minister for Local Government I have heard a lot of concern expressed by local governments, primarily around what a dog’s breakfast the legislation is and how it is working in practice. These amendments go some way to addressing some of those concerns, but we are taking the very sensible approach of conducting a parliamentary inquiry into this issue so we get the balance right around community safety, supporting our local communities and supporting our local councils in their enforcing of the laws of dealing with restricted breed dogs. We are also ensuring that we have a system that allows councils to actively budget around these issues rather than facing high expenditure in legal fees in trying to fight some of the cases that some of the councils have had to deal with. I will come back to that.

The amendment bill before the house ensures that there is a moratorium on the destruction of restricted breed dogs until such time as the joint parliamentary committee can report on its inquiry. The committee is expected to run the inquiry and report on 30 September 2015. The amendments and the investigation relate specifically to the destruction of a dog based solely on its status as a restricted breed dog. I would like to put on the record exactly what that definition is, because there is still confusion in my community around what a restricted breed dog is and what it is not.

The definition stands for those dogs that appear to be American pit bull terriers, or pit bull terriers as they are quite often known, perro de presa Canarios, dogo Argentinos, Japanese tosas or fila Brasileiros. Within the approved standards American Staffordshire terriers are not considered restricted dogs if the owner has one of the following certificates stating that the dog is an American Staffordshire terrier: a certificate signed by a veterinary practitioner, a pedigree certificate from a body such as the Australian National Kennel Council, a pedigree certificate from a national breed council registered with the Australian National Kennel Council, or a pedigree certificate from the Australian National Kennel Council itself. Owners may keep their restricted breed dogs as long as the dogs were in Victoria before 1 September 2010 and registered as any breed with their council before 30 September 2011.

As members will see from the definitions, this is complex, and it is something we need to better communicate to our communities through the avenues of local government. That is something I hope the parliamentary inquiry will address. Councils across Victoria have the right to seize unregistered restricted breed dogs. Where dogs are deemed by a council to meet the standard, they are declared restricted breed dogs. Owners have the right to appeal the council’s decision through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. That is the point at which for the last few years quite a number of councils have been overburdened by having to bear the costs of legal challenges over individual dogs where owners have fought the decision that their dog falls into this restricted breed category.

I note that the City of Monash, for example, was forced to spend well over $100 000 fighting one case — —

Mr Dimopoulos interjected.

Ms HUTCHINS — $180 000, sorry. I stand corrected. In that case the dog was classified as a restricted breed dog, and whilst the council was acting according to the legislation, the challenge was eventually lost and the dog was set free.

That is not the only case that councils have had to fight and in the process fork out tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars of ratepayers money. Ratepayers in Cardinia last year forked out $80 000 to defend a challenge regarding an alleged American pit bull terrier which was later returned to its owner. Since 2011 Hume council has spent more than $115 000 just on court challenges in this area. I know the Brimbank council has a significant challenge underway. While the costs of that challenge have not been finalised, I am informed unofficially that the cost of that particular case could run to well over $200 000.

It was never the intent of the legislation that our councils would be caught up in a quagmire of legal action. In fact that is what this amendment is about. We are trying to iron some of that out, and certainly the parliamentary inquiry is about dealing with that issue.

There is another serious factor to look at, and that is the link between the operation of the current legislation and the lowering of the number of dog attacks. I note that an article that appeared in the Age only 12 months ago said that between 2011 and 2013 the number of dog attacks in the City of Hume went up despite this legislation being around and despite the definitions of restricted breed dogs. Of course not all dog attacks are related to these breeds. There are plenty of small dogs out there who take a dislike to postmen and people walking past their properties who they will sometimes attack. Often aged dogs, who may not have the senses they once had, become involved in those attacks.

We have got to look at ways of providing safety to our community and not just put the burden on our local councils to fight legal cases. We need to look at solutions that provide real answers. In the same Age article from last year, it was found that of the nine councils contacted by the Age seven had reported a higher number of dog attacks in their area. I am hoping that the proposed parliamentary inquiry will look at how we can better address this issue, what some of the real solutions are we can provide to help our local communities deal with this and how we can reduce the legal burdens that are put on councils. We want to avoid the situation where a council has to go to court every time it seizes a dangerous dog, as per the definition of the legislation, only to find that although it has stood up for its community and fought hard to take a dangerous dog off the street, it ends up being required by the court to release that dangerous dog.

As the Minister for Agriculture recently said, there are dangerous dogs in the community and other dangerous breeds of dog that are put down although they are known to be safe. We have to get that balance right. We have to get our community’s safety right. This amendment provides the best opportunity to provide certainty while ensuring that the community remains safe. I commend the bill to the house.