Domestic Animals Amendment (Restricted Breed Dogs) Bill 2017

It gives me great pleasure to rise this afternoon to speak on the Domestic Animals Amendment (Restricted Breed Dogs) Bill 2017 on behalf of the Liberals and The Nationals. Essentially this bill is in response to an inquiry that was held by the Standing Committee on the Economy and Infrastructure between May 2015 and March 2016. That committee looked into the issue if restricted breed dogs and came up with a series of recommendations — 31 recommendations in total. This bill in part addresses some of the issues that the inquiry uncovered as it sought detailed information into the aspects of the previous restricted breed dog legislation that was in play in this state under the Domestic Animals Act 1994.

The bill takes into consideration a whole range of things in relation to what is quite a sensitive issue in terms of public policy and public safety within Victoria and the way dangerous dogs are housed and regulated. This bill addresses a range of those issues. Its main purposes are to implement the recommendation to remove the prohibition on the keeping of restricted breed dogs in Victoria, to allow councils to register these dogs and to make other related miscellaneous amendments to the Domestic Animals Act 1994.

I want to go into some of the details in relation to the issue because this bill has got some background in terms of some situations that have occurred within Victoria which brought about a range of additional restrictions to dangerous dogs in this state. At the time, back in 2011, I was the chief of staff to the then Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, Peter Walsh, in another place. One of the horrific issues that we had to deal with during our time in that portfolio was the death of a little girl by the name of Ayen Chol back in 2011. Ayen Chol was just four years of age when some unfortunate circumstances took place in the western suburbs which brought about the end of Ayen Chol's life, which was tragic.

Essentially what happened on that day was a father was looking after a couple of dogs on behalf of his son, and those dogs escaped from the father's house and ran down the street. They forced their way or went through an open gate out the front of Ayen Chol's family home, through an open door and attacked Ayen Chol. As a result of the injuries she sustained at that time, she died — a little four-year-old girl, which is absolutely tragic, who at the time was holding on to her mother's leg when she was attacked. When you are in the sanctity of your own home. that is one place where you should be safe, particularly when you are holding on to your mother's leg. Unfortunately on this occasion because these two pit bull dogs, which had got away from the place where they were meant to be, got into someone else's house, Ayen Chol was killed.

That is the background to essentially where this bill has come from over the last few years, although there has been a long history of restrictions and regulations that have been put in place in Victoria to deal with dangerous dogs and dogs more generally in terms of how they interact with the community here in Victoria.

As we know, pit bull terriers can be quite dangerous. They are animals that by and large were designed or were bred to be fighting dogs. Unfortunately we have all seen reports on the news from time to time where footage has come out of dogfights taking place, and by and large when those dogfights do take place, the preferred dog of choice for fighting is a pit bull terrier out of the United States or a crossbreed which has strong genetic links to pit bull terriers.

As a result of that tragic circumstance back in 2011, Peter Walsh at the time decided that action should be taken. It was not only Peter Walsh who decided that action should be taken, because I remember very clearly in the days preceding it that the then Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Andrews, and his chief of staff came into Peter Walsh's office and offered their full support in terms of any restrictions that we would want to implement in terms of cracking down on these dangerous dogs in our society. That was very welcome at the time, and I think by and large there is bipartisan support in terms of ensuring that dangerous dogs do not harm the people in our community.

There is no doubt that dogs play a very important role in our community, but we do not want a situation where dogs, particularly those dogs that are bred for fighting, have a predetermined mindset to be aggressive in their demeanour — I think people have probably seen that, whether it be in pit bull terriers or other dogs that have an aggressive nature — as we all know that they can be quite intimidating for anyone who is involved, let alone if you are a small child.

What Peter Walsh, as Minister for Agriculture at the time, decided to do was end the moratorium in relation to the restriction of these types of dogs, and that was widely supported. There was an amnesty in place that allowed owners of those dogs to have to, at some stage, register them, and there was an extended time frame I think until the end of 2012 in terms of when that registration had to occur. What Peter Walsh did was immediately end the amnesty. From that time the moratorium in relation to registering these dogs was ceased, which made it illegal to own these types of dogs and not have them registered with the local council.

In terms of those dangerous dogs, it is not just the pit bull terriers. I think there were about five different breeds that were considered to be in the dangerous dog category that also had to be registered by that time, and the former agriculture minister ensured that that took place. There is no doubt there were a number of dogs that were not registered in that period of time before the amnesty ended, but people had plenty of time to ensure that their dogs were registered, and if they were not registered, there was a view that those dogs had ceased to have the right to live in this society.

Ms Shing — And that went very well for you, didn't it?

Mr O'SULLIVAN — Well, Ms Shing, it was one of those decisions that was taken as a result of a tragic circumstance, and it was done in the view of being able to protect people into the future, so it is certainly not something that we would back away from, because it saved lives.

It is interesting to note that it was not an easy reform to put in place. It was not. As we know, dog lovers absolutely love their dogs and they will do whatever they can to protect them. By and large that is fair enough that they do that, because many people refer to their dogs as their furry children, and I have seen situations where that is very much the case. There is nothing wrong with having a pet dog. While I do not have a pet dog myself, I have certainly been involved in relationships in the past where there have been dogs involved. I very much liked having a dog around. They are good company, and they certainly do serve an enormous purpose in terms of being a companion animal. What we do not want is dogs that are designed to kill. Dogs that are designed to kill do not deserve to be in this society.

What happened was that at the time it was difficult to actually determine the exact breed of these dangerous dogs, and there was a standard put in place by professionals which was the best way we knew in terms of identifying these breeds of dogs. So we were able to put that standard to the test. Many dogs were deemed to be dangerous dogs, either a pit bull terrier or other, and in terms of the implementation of that it was difficult for councils because there is no precise test in terms of what these dogs are. DNA tests are indeterminate in terms of being able to exactly identify what these dogs are, so many of the owners who had these dogs would spend enormous amounts of money defending the rights of their dogs and trying to prove that they were not actually one of those dangerous dog breed types. This put a burden on councils in terms of a lot of time, energy, resources and money spent on defending the classification of these dogs at VCAT.

While this was a difficult reform and it was difficult for councils to prosecute these restricted breed dogs, there is no doubt it has saved lives in terms of getting these dogs out of our society. This government, when it came to power, in line with its election policy, decided to change that system because it did not want to continue with it. That was the right of this government. It went to the election with that policy, and the people voted this government into power, so it was the right of this government to do that.

Some of the things we were able to do as part of putting that legislation in place included ensuring that once those dogs were registered by councils the proper safeguards were put in place. When these dogs had to be outside they had muzzles, they were on leads and they had identifying collars so people would be aware of what sorts of dogs they were. When they were at home there was appropriate signage and appropriate fencing, and appropriate safeguards were put in place to protect the community. I think that is something that we would all agree is a good thing and a good outcome of that legislation, because there is no doubt it has made our community safer.

Going back to the parliamentary inquiry, it looked at this issue in a lot of detail. My colleague Mr Morris was the chair of the committee, and I am sure he will make further comments on what the committee came up with. Some of the recommendations of the inquiry are addressed in this piece of legislation, and we are happy to look at those when considering this piece of legislation.

There is a whole lot more that I could talk about, but I will not go into a lot of detail now. I will take up some of those issues in a bit more detail when we go into the committee stage of this bill. They are the main things I want to say, but we can look at some of the other details of the bill, such as the extra charges that this bill introduces for registration of cats and dogs, later on. I am happy to leave it there for now and take up the debate again during the committee stage.

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