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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 56

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:59 PM) —I move:

That the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Amendment Regulation 2004 (No. 3), as contained in Statutory Rules 2004 No. 121 and made under the Customs Act 1901, be disallowed.

The regulation which I am seeking to disallow enables the importation of dangerous dogs into Australia for what are deemed to be scientific purposes. Those dangerous dogs include the American pit bull, the Japanese tosa and the Argentinean and Brazilian fighting dogs. In seeking the logic behind the development of these regulations, the Democrats were told by the Minister for Justice and Customs that it was desirable to allow the potential import of these dangerous animals into Australia for scientific purposes. He then went on to write:

I understand that at this stage no immediate scientific purposes have been identified, which I consider is understandable given the absolute prohibition on imports that have existed for over a decade.

I guess the government is trying to be pre-emptive here and soften the complete import ban in advance of any possible application down the track to import these particular breeds of dogs for scientific purposes.

My view and the Democrats' view is that there have not been sufficient reasons given as to why we would want to relax this ban in any way, given the inadequate indications of what type of scientific research on these dogs may be required or desirable at any stage in the future. Indeed, there is no indication given as to why imported dogs of these particular breeds might be necessary for research, given that there are already significant numbers of these dogs present in Australia.

As far as I am aware, there has been no indication of any consideration of the possible impact on state legislation and regulations covering the ownership and use of these breeds of dogs, which in some jurisdictions have also been deemed to be potentially dangerous. I mention by way of example the Western Australian Dog (Restricted Breed) Regulations, made a couple of years ago under their Dog Act, which recognise a restricted breed of dog as a breed whose importation to Australia is prohibited under the Commonwealth Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations. I do not know, and I would be interested if the minister could indicate, whether or not it has been verified that these regulations today are not going to have any impact on those Western Australian regulations. Similarly, currently in South Australia any person who gives away or sells, or advertises to sell or give away, any of the four breeds currently banned from import that are listed under this regulation is guilty of an offence. It is unclear how any scientific research on a dog imported under this regulation here today could operate in South Australia, given the state legislation that is already in existence.

I should emphasise, as I said before, that there is already in Australia a significant number of these breeds of dogs which have been deemed to be dangerous. There are inadequate protection and controls, in my view, over the use of dogs for research from some animal shelters. In 2000, South Australia's lost dogs home reported receiving 30 to 35 pit bull terriers each month—that is three times more than other breeds. Should the government wish to enable these breeds to be locked up for whatever experiments or research are deemed necessary, which are yet to be identified, I think there are already more than enough specimens existing in Australia. In my view there is still insufficient protection against how those dogs might be used for research and experimentation. We do not need to be importing more.

There is no way in which the minister for customs or his department could possibly follow up to ensure that any dogs that are given a licence to be imported are actually used for the purposes described or, more importantly, that they are not also used for breeding either at the same time as the research is being conducted or after it is concluded. We do not have a proper national system for keeping track of the number and types of animals used in scientific research in Australia. Should we have national animal welfare laws established, as the Democrats have often advocated, beyond the piecemeal approach which is in existence at the moment from state to state—beyond the haphazard management which stretches across the agriculture, science, health, local planning and environment portfolios—we might have a legitimate baseline from which to make decisions around matters such as those proposed here today.

The government places a lot of reliance on the existence of animal ethics committees, saying that the ethics committees will approve any research and the minister has to ascertain that before they would permit the importation of dogs for scientific purposes. I would suggest that the minister see if he could be provided with the actual number and species of animals in experimental facilities in Australia today. The fact is that the minister could not do that, because they are not able to be produced, because the system we have is so piecemeal and not monitored and overseen on a national level. I do not seek to make any specific criticism of animal ethics committees; I served on an animal ethics committee at Griffith University in Queensland. But the fact is that there is no national oversight and register of all of these experiments that are approved by different animal ethics committees. Different committees work at different levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Once the approval is given by those committees for potential research, the ability to follow up and genuinely oversee and ensure that animals are used in the way that it is said they will be, and particularly that they are disposed of afterwards in the way it is said they will be, is less than perfect.

There is already a lot of debate and concern in Australia about the habit of some pounds—not all, by any means, but some—to, after dogs are dropped off, pass on those dogs for research purposes for experimentation in places like veterinary schools. People might say that if the dogs are going to be put down anyway then they may as well be used for training purposes for vets. I will not go into that argument here because there are broader issues, but the fact is there are currently not sufficient controls in Australia to properly monitor the situation or even know what is happening let alone to properly regulate the use or control of dogs in Australia for scientific research. In that situation, I do not believe we should be adding to the number of dogs that we bring into the country for this purpose.

On what I believe is a related matter—some may not see it as completely relevant to the current debate but I think it is germane—we do not have a proper system in place in Australia for companion animal management. We are saying here that the dogs we are proposing to import are not companion dogs but are for research. But the broader problem is about why some of these dogs are deemed to be dangerous and why in these circumstances, beyond having a blanket national ban on the importation of certain breeds, we do not have a proper coherent system for tracking animals and for companion animal management. There was a report in the Age just yesterday which showed that we still have not managed to get a simple, workable, single system for pet identification within Australia and for tracking of companion animals between states. That again brings us back to the problem that, once these dogs are allowed into Australia, there is no real mechanism for ensuring that they are tracked or are used for the purpose that it was said they were going to be used—even if that is legitimate, which is a separate debate—and that they are not also used for breeding stock.

Senators would probably be aware that there is some community contention about the approach of banning certain breeds of dogs that are deemed to be dangerous, such as the American pit bull or these fighting dogs. The facts are certainly very important. Over 30,000 dog attacks were reported nationally in the year 2000 and by far the vast majority of those attacks were on children under 10 years of age. In the same year, the South Australian Health Commission released a report confirming dog attacks were the second most common cause of hospital admissions for children. It is believed that pit bull terriers were responsible for four of the seven dog attacks in Australia in the decade between 1990 and 2000 in which people have died—a higher death rate, I might note, than occurs from shark attack.

I believe that these figures and this problem are very much a result of a lack of responsibility on the part of pet owners rather than any inherent danger in dogs in general, but it all goes to highlight the lack of an overall national system of management of companion animals and dog breeds. I do not think we should be opening up a loophole to allow the importation of certain breeds of dogs that have been deemed to be dangerous when there is not a proper and adequate mechanism for following up or keeping track of those dogs or a proper mechanism for ensuring that the use of animals in research is justified in terms of that research. I do not think we should be expanding the numbers of animals at all. In light of these figures and in light of the lack of a proper national system for regulating the use of animals in experimentation, I hope the Senate would understand why I believe there should be a very good reason given for relaxing the ban on imports of the most dangerous breed of dogs, however slim the risk it may present might seem. I am yet to be convinced that the government has such a reason.

I am not convinced that all of the animal experimentation that is done in Australia, particularly on larger animals such as dogs, is done properly or is necessary. There is no national mechanism for overseeing all of that. Adding more dogs to the list or having more dogs potentially subjected to that experimentation is not something that I see as particularly desirable unless clear reasons are given. There have been no reasons given at all, beyond the suggestion that maybe somebody down the track might want to so we may as well relax it now in case they do.

Similarly, with regard to concern about having these dangerous dog breeds in Australia, the ban was put in place some years ago, presumably for the very good reason that we did not want to have more of these dogs within Australia. The longer the ban is in place, the more difficult it is for people who want that breed of dog to find a purebred version. In such circumstances and given that we do not have proper national controls and proper ways of tracking the animals once they come into Australia, relaxing the ban is, again, something I do not see as desirable or necessary, even if the risk is slim, unless a clear, strong reason is given. I certainly have not heard or seen any strong reason—or even a weak reason, frankly—from the government side. Hence, I have moved this disallowance motion.