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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 59

Senator LUDWIG (4:13 PM) —The opposition have taken a very careful look at this. We are minded, in this instance, to support the disallowance motion of Senator Bartlett. This is for a number of reasons, which I will go to briefly. In the first instance, the purpose of the motion, it seems to us, is to relax customs regulations prohibiting the import of dangerous dogs, such as pit bull terriers, for scientific purposes. The question that is raised is that there must be a live issue about scientific purposes being required at this particular juncture—this ban has been in for some time. We took it on face value and we sought advice from the regulations themselves as to the reasons for the relaxation of the customs regulation in this instance. They were unfortunately a little unclear. Having been on the Regulations and Ordinances Committee, I would have liked the opportunity to have a look at what they said as well, but time is always against us in these issues.

I then thought that the next best bet was to ask the Minister for Justice and Customs about the reasons for the relaxation of this particular regulation. Without going into any significant detail, there does not seem to have been a cogent reason put forward by the government. I would have thought—looking at the type of regulation—that it would be a live issue, perhaps an educational institution or some other scientific body seeking the importation of a particular dog for a reason which then required the relaxation. I would have thought that there was a significant issue that would militate against the reasons for not allowing these dogs in.

The reasons for not allowing these dogs in are quite clear. These types of dogs were banned in the first place because, according to the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Australia, children aged under 12 are most at risk of dog attacks and children aged one to four years have the highest rate of injury. Most serious injuries from dog attacks are to the child victim's head and face and these injuries often leave substantial scars. Peter Thomson et al in their 1997 study found that 90 per cent of children admitted to hospital from dog bites suffered injuries to the face or head. It is a big step for relaxation of the regulation to occur after it has been in for so long.

There are four breeds of dog explicitly banned from import under the current regulations. That instrument includes the dogo argentine, the fila brazileiro, the japanese tosa and the pit bull terrier. All of these dogs have been specifically bred from fighting breeds and can be particularly dangerous. I think everyone here and anyone listening would agree. One of the breeds, for example, was banned because it has the behavioural characteristic of extreme aversion to strangers and in many cases is liable to bite anyone who touches it, outside of those whom it considers immediate family. There is a history in relation to these particular dogs. I will not go into it in detail but, for instance, pit bull terriers, known for their stubborn attacks and aggressiveness, are supposed to be able to exert about 680 kilograms of pressure with jaws that lock like a steel trap—several times greater than that of a german shepherd.

It is true that a dog attack can happen; but these dogs are capable of doing much greater damage than can a fox terrier. That is why they have been banned and continue to be banned as imports. Dangerous dogs pose a significant threat to both domestic urban Australia and rural and regional Australia. The idea of lifting the ban, without any specified reason given and without the minister providing any detailed or cogent argument, deserves far more scrutiny than simply relaxing customs regulations. Given that the purpose is to relax the customs regulation prohibiting the import of dangerous dogs, you would expect that there would at least be some reasonable reason put forward to answer the usual things that we might ask in here: why, who, where, what and when?

In this instance, as I have said, we have not been able to ascertain a reason from the minister other than the broad response that we have received. It certainly did not go to whether there was any broad consultation with interested groups or whether the scientific community had a specific use for these dogs. It did not go to any specific measures or safeguards to ensure that these dogs do not escape into the community or interbreed with domestic pets or whether there has been consultation even with wool growers, agricultural growers or anyone else. It is not a case of saying, `It's a minor regulation and we think there might be a use at some point.' We think the onus is on the government to demonstrate clearly why it should have the regulation and also to demonstrate that there has been consultation and that it knows who might be interested in importing the breeds so that it can ensure that this is dealt with in a reasonable way.

If the government does know all of that, it should put that on the table and inform the Senate of the reasons. We can then deal with it on its merits and determine our position accordingly. It seems that someone might have thought it was a good idea, but without any justification. If there is a justification, it should be provided; otherwise it is just a way of adding more red tape to the whole system: `We'll just have a customs regulation because we think we might need it.' It is a bit like a back-pocket amendment. Until there is a need, there is nothing to consider. Should the government have a particular need for an amending regulation, we would consider it on its merits. But, in this instance, there cannot be any merit because the government cannot demonstrate any need.

The proposed changes therefore—I do not want to take up too much of the Senate's time on this—appear to be, from at least a short look at them, a waste of time and should not have been made in the first instance. Labor will support the motion of Senator Bartlett in this instance. We will add the caveat that this could change if a demonstrable need or reason is put to us as to why there should be a regulation for the importation of such banned dogs as these for scientific purposes. The government can always come back and do that. The onus is on the government to do that. We will not allow amendments such as this one.