Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2013

Ms GRALEY (Narre Warren South) — It is a pleasure to speak on the Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2013. I am pleased to see this legislation before the house because it is very important on many levels for me, the constituents I represent and indeed for most people in Victoria.

We have all heard of tragic cases where children have been mauled to death or attacked in parks.

We constantly hear about dogs wandering around unleashed and finding themselves in people’s backyards where they scare the living daylights out of the people who live there. I know of a particular case where some elderly people woke up to find a dog that looked pretty ferocious wandering around their backyard. That was a cause of great alarm and discomfort. In fact it has made their lives a little scarier; they feel much more vulnerable.

I am very pleased to see that the government is seeking to improve the legislation that it first brought to the house as a result of the Ayen Chol pit bull attack on 17 August 2011. We were all aghast at what happened on that occasion. Both sides of the chamber were very pleased to support the government in pursuing a crackdown on the types of dangerous dogs that were involved in that tragic accident.

I must declare that I am a dog lover and have a family member who works in animal welfare. It was quite a few months ago now that I spoke to the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, who brought this bill to the house, about a case in which my family member was involved at that time. I pointed out to him the inadequacy of the previous legislation.

Therefore I am very pleased to see that the minister has finally brought these new laws before us and that they reflect some of the suggestions that have been made not just by me and people in the animal welfare sector but specifically by local councils that have been doing it particularly hard under the current laws.
The bill amends the Domestic Animals Act 1994 to require owners of dangerous, menacing and restricted breed dogs to provide greater information about their dogs to municipal officers, and that is a very important step in the right direction.

In particular, the bill gives the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), the Magistrates Court and authorised officers greater powers to enforce existing laws, which are much needed, and to make it a criminal offence to breed restricted breed dogs. I agree with the member for Burwood on this; it strikes me as strange that it is not a criminal offence to breed restricted breed dogs. That is certainly a strong and needed step in the right direction. The bill also shortens to 14 days the period that a dog needs to be kept by a municipality and reverses the onus of establishing that a dog is not a restricted breed dog. The bill also amends the Crimes Act 1958 to prevent a criminal from owning a restricted breed dog, and I totally agree with that step.

As I said, I have a family member who has been involved in such cases recently and the stress and burden of that responsibility has been palpable.

As I am sure the government is aware, and as members opposite seem to have been lobbying the minister on this issue, local councils have had to bear the brunt of not only the cost and the resourcing but also the emotional turmoil of having to deal with the current legislation. I note that in May 2013 the Municipal Association of Victoria, the peak body for councils, asked that a special interest advisory group be established to discuss, collate data, evaluate program activity and evaluate VCAT appeal data with a view to advocating legislative reform which will remove ambiguity and enable councils to effectively administer the Domestic Animals Act and meet the objectives of this act, in particular with respect to dangerous dogs.

I note also that Monash City Council, which the member for Mount Waverley mentioned, and I think Banyule City Council have been particularly laboured with expensive court cases. The ratepayers of those councils have been laboured with, I think, $200 000 in legal fees, because of the inadequacy of the current legislation. I notice that when cases are brought before the courts, something that we would think would take only a short time has resulted in quite long court cases and taken a lot of council resources. Council officers have been put on the stand and subjected to very rigorous interrogation.

Some of the cases that have gone to court have been funded by groups such as the American Pit Bull Terrier Club of Australia, and I think everybody in this house would have received emails from people all over the world who are trying to save dogs that have been seized and impounded by our councils. There are lots of sad stories about the poor dogs, who I hear may have frightened the living daylights out of somebody and come close to making their life a tragedy.

These people are very well resourced and very well organised and they have lots of money to spend, whereas we know that councils have very limited resources and very limited time to pursue these sorts of cases for days and days on end. I know for a fact that when they have interrogated council officers, they have really sought to undermine the knowledge, integrity and professional expertise of the council officers, and this has been most upsetting. People have been questioned quite brutally by some organisations who retain expensive QCs and lawyers, and it has not made it easy for council officers to make sure that dangerous dog breeds are outlawed.

I am very pleased to see that this legislation has come into the house. Labor is not opposing it.

However, we are proposing a parliamentary review of Victoria’s breed-specific legislation regime to see how it has worked as a tool for preventing dog attacks and to investigate whether there are any cost-effective alternatives to breed-specific legislation, and we will be moving a motion to that effect.

One of the things we need to do as a community, as a government and as local councils is to make sure that the people who work in local councils get adequate resources to run programs to educate the public about sensible dog ownership. When I was mayor of the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council we had a hugely successful pet and pony expo where we encouraged people to bring their dogs and offered them all sorts of incentives to get them tagged and trained. There was all sorts of fun and games for the dogs on that day, but it was really about educating the owner about being more responsible. Councils need to do that. I know that other councils are starting to do that and it goes across the age groups — young, old and middle-aged.

If you have a dog, the best thing you can do for that dog is to train it properly from day one, and you will then have a friend for life. You will have a lovely dog that will be a great companion to you and your family. We need to make sure that councils get the support they need. We need to make sure that this legislation works this time, that people are not scared of dogs and that dog remains man’s best friend.