House of Assembly: Thursday, December 01, 2022


Summary Offences (Dog Theft) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE (Port Adelaide—Deputy Premier, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence and Space Industries, Minister for Climate, Environment and Water) (16:33): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to introduce the Summary Offences (Dog Theft) Amendment Bill 2022, which implements the election commitment made by the government to increase penalties to deter dog theft. The bill amends the Summary Offences Act 1953 to insert a new summary offence of dog theft into section 47A. The offence has a maximum penalty of $50,000 or imprisonment for two years.

In recent times, reports in the news and media have suggested that the cost of dogs, and purebred and designer breeds in particular, has increased considerably due to increases in demand and a reduction in the supply in the context of the pandemic. This, in turn, has created the possibility that offenders will seek to take advantage of these circumstances and make improper financial gains from stealing or selling dogs.

Dogs have a special place in the family home and need to be protected from being taken away from their loved ones. While the theft of a dog can currently be dealt with under the general theft offence in section 134 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935, this offence does not explicitly provide for a fine. A new summary offence for dog theft in the bill introduces a substantial financial penalty of $50,000, which acts as a strong deterrent against would-be offenders, adding another level of protection for families and their dogs. This can be particularly relevant to families with high-value dog breeds.

A new offence is similar to approaches adopted in New South Wales and the Northern Territory, which both provide for a separate summary offence for stealing a dog. To clarify, I note that in South Australia dog theft can still be prosecuted under the general theft offence under the CLCA if needed, as police may choose to charge this offence where it is appropriate, having regard to the particular nature and extent of the offending, strength of the available evidence and the appropriate sentence.

For example, where an offender uses violence against a person to steal a dog, it may be appropriate to charge theft under this CLCA to make out the offence of robbery under section 137 of the CLCA. As serious imprisonment penalties already apply for the offence of theft under the CLCA, the bill creates a simple summary offence with a new significant financial penalty. A new summary offence sends a clear signal that anyone who steals a dog will face serious consequences. It also acknowledges that dogs are not simply property but are deeply loved members of the family which cannot easily be replaced.

I would also like to address a number of important questions about this bill that were raised in the other place, and I provide the following information in response to those queries. Noting that the bill is among a suite of issues relating to animal protection, questions were raised about the status of other reforms that government is progressing with regard to puppy farms. I am pleased to inform the house that the government has made changes to regulations under the Dog and Cat Management Act 1995 to limit the number of dogs that registered breeders can have on their properties, which means that since 1 September this year new breeders in South Australia are prohibited from owning more than 50 breeding females for the purpose of breeding and selling puppies.

In addition, a legislative review of the Dog and Cat Management Act 1995 is currently underway and is due to be completed by the end of the year. It is intended that a further delivery of our election commitments in this area will follow the completion of this review. A question was raised about the definition of 'dog' for the purposes of this new summary offence. I can confirm that as 'dog' is not defined for the purpose of a new summary dog theft offence, the word takes on its ordinary meaning. For clarity, I note that the Macquarie Dictionary defines dog as:

…a domesticated carnivore, Canis familiaris, descended from the grey wolf; bred in a great many varieties and commonly kept as a pet.

There was some concern raised that the definition of 'dog' may be interpreted to not include greyhounds, noting that there has been discussion in previous years about this in the context of animal welfare and dog and cat management laws. I confirm that the bill was developed with the intention of covering all domestic dogs, which includes greyhounds, and the ordinary meaning of 'dog' is considered appropriate to use for the purposes of the new summary offence.

South Australia Police was consulted for the purposes of developing the bill and also provided feedback on the operational impacts of creating a new summary dog theft offence. Before the last state election, the Labor Party undertook extensive consultation on our policy platforms, including our animal welfare policy, with stakeholders from across the South Australian community. Community and local member feedback, especially in the northern suburbs, was that dog theft was on the rise and that current laws are not enough of a deterrent.

Dog theft has been the subject of various high-profile news media reports over the last few years. However, I am advised there are no police or court systems which currently capture the actual incidence of dog theft in South Australia. I also understand that Cats and Dogs Online, which is the mandatory database for registration of dogs and cats, breeders, microchip and desexing information, takes reports of dog theft on an ad hoc basis but does not keep a specific database on stolen dogs. I note that introducing a new standalone summary offence for dog theft through the bill may help to improve records of incidents of dog theft.

Consideration was given to whether the new summary offence should be extended to other species of animals that may have significant financial value. However, it was decided that the offence be limited to the dog on the basis of observations that dog theft is on the rise; that with spiralling dog prices, a readily accessible black market for dogs, theft of a dog is likely to be more common; and the need to deter opportunistic conduct in particular, which might involve, for example, taking a dog from the front of a shop, a suburban yard or a dog park less likely to apply to situations involving other animals. I commend the bill to the house and seek leave to insert the explanation of clauses into Hansard without my reading it.

Leave granted.

Explanation of Clauses

Part 1—Preliminary

1—Short title


These clauses are formal.

Part 2—Amendment of Summary Offences Act 1953

3—Insertion of section 47A

This clause inserts section 47A into the principal Act.

47A—Dog theft

This provision establishes an offence of dog theft. It provides that a person who steals a dog, or has unlawfully in their possession a stolen dog knowing that the dog has been stolen, is guilty of an offence.

Mr TEAGUE (Heysen) (16:39): I rise to indicate that I am the lead speaker for the opposition, and I indicate the opposition's support for the bill. I flag that it may be convenient to deal with these questions at the committee stage. I flag them in the course of this debate in case it might be convenient for the minister to deal with them in summing up the debate.

The nature of my consideration is twofold, I suppose, and it is partly in the light of the house's recent revisiting of the Animal Welfare Act. The new section 47A provision that is going to provide specifically for dog theft will be contained as a new summary offence and with a substantial penalty that almost, but not quite, replicates the section 14(1) offence in the Animal Welfare Act for engaging in a prohibited activity.

The penalty in section 14(1) of the Animal Welfare Act is $50,000 or four years' imprisonment as a maximum penalty, whereas we are here seeing a new summary offence with $50,000 or two years, so no quibbling about the difference in maximum period of imprisonment, but they are somewhat analogous. A query, therefore, is what consideration had been given to whether this might better fit being described as an additional 'prohibited activity', bearing in mind that, as we understand, one of the practical purposes for which dogs are being stolen that has a monetary value attached is for the subsection (5)(a) purpose, that is, a longstanding prohibited activity engaging in animal fights.

Of course if somebody steals a dog and engages in an animal fight, then they are offending in those two different ways, but in a sense that lines up in an animal welfare context: clearly whether one focuses on the intrinsic value of the animal both in and of itself and to those in whose households dogs reside and form part of the family, or whether one focuses on the financial value of dogs and we have a significant penalty applied to disincentivise the stealing of them. There is no doubt cruelty involved in the act of stealing and in the act of retaining a dog that has been stolen. I just ask the question about the proper place of the new offence.

In the same way, I focus for a moment on the longstanding summary offence in section 47, which relates, of course, to interference with homing pigeons. We have the longstanding offence in section 47 of the Summary Offences Act that makes it an offence to interfere with a homing pigeon. There is a defence to that offence: if the homing pigeon entered onto the land, then there might be grounds for a defence to that offence. Two things are important in terms of section 47; one is that the penalty attached in section 47—and this will sit right alongside it—is $250.

The second point—and this is a matter of substance—is there is no amendment on file. Bearing in mind that the activity of homing pigeons is one that involves human connection and relationship on the homing pigeon side, there is a monetary value attached in terms of compensation, whereas there is not here because we are simply talking about the theft and penalty.

Not only does section 47(2) provide for what is a relatively minor amount of penalty—$250—but it also then goes on to provide in a way that really might serve the practical purpose in this case for a civil remedy for the owner. Section 47(2) provides, as is well known:

(2) Upon the conviction of a person for an offence against subsection (1)—

that is the interference, including killing or injuring the homing pigeon—

the court may order the convicted person to pay to the owner of the pigeon [who contravenes] that subsection a sum equal to the value of the pigeon.

It then goes on with the defence that is set out in subsection (3). New section 47A sits alongside that provision but without the civil remedy attached; that is, without the capacity for the court to turn around and say, 'Alright, there is a significant value attached.' In this case, as we know—and not just in COVID times but for a variety of reasons—we have seen really quite dramatically increasing values of pets for sale.

Clearly, one of the reasons to impose a very significant financial maximum penalty is a disincentive for not just stealing dogs for the purposes of engaging in fights, but stealing dogs for the purposes of resale where individual puppies might cost upwards of $5,000. It is a significant disincentive if there is a penalty that is associated that is a multiple of that, but that is cold comfort on its own to the person who has purchased the dog, and the penalty having been applied may not then translate in terms of that civil remedy, or compensation at least, directly pursuant to the subsection.

The first point to highlight in terms of understanding where this will now fit in the statute book is, as I have described, in terms of the possibility that there would have been—to send a clear signal—the theft of a dog is an animal welfare matter and might properly be included among those prohibited activities, particularly in the context of the purpose for which some dogs we are told are being stolen. Secondly, the possibility for there to be a direct provision along the lines that are set out in section 47, it might fit neatly given that we are here contemplating adding to that body of offences in that part of the Summary Offences Act.

In terms of belts and braces, while we are on it, I do not know, as I have not reminded myself, how recently the maximum penalty in section 47 had been revisited, but it seems to be by comparison, should this find its way onto the statute book alongside section 47, that there is clearly a relatively stark contrast. Those are the matters that I flag in terms of both the penalty and the place within the legislation that this sits.

I otherwise take the opportunity to acknowledge that this was a commitment by the government and, as I understand it, an election commitment—at least that is my recollection—and that ought to be noted in terms of the consideration of the house when it comes to the implementation of it, if not the particular way in which the government has elected to go about it.

I certainly adopt and would emphasise those observations of the Deputy Premier in relation to the important place in homes and families that dogs have. While we are perhaps in some possibility of jeopardy when we single out individual animals for this sort of treatment, there is no doubt that dogs have a special place. It may be that, if this is successful in seeing a reduction in this sort of activity, the offence might be rolled out more widely to apply not only to dogs but to other domestic animals. I do not flag any in particular, but it is acknowledged that dogs are given a special place for the purposes of this particular legislation.

The other aspect that has been referred to is that there is what appears to be both a newfound monetary value and a propensity for dogs to be misappropriated for those fights that would also attract the attention of offending pursuant to section 14(1) of the Animal Welfare Act.

It is with those brief words that I indicate that the opposition supports the passage of the bill. I would certainly invite any response to those particular matters that I have raised about the way in which this is to be legislated, but otherwise I commend the bill to the house.

S.E. ANDREWS (Gibson) (16:53): I rise to speak in support of the Summary Offences (Dog Theft) Amendment Bill. This bill may be short, but it is important to the thousands of families who own a dog in South Australia and the 315,550 dogs, including our family dog, Freya, who are registered in South Australia as at 30 June 2022. This number includes 13,390 working dogs, 1,125 racing greyhounds and 314 assistance dogs, including Australian Lions Hearing and Medical Alert dogs, guide dogs, PTSD dogs for veterans, autism therapy dogs, and dogs for health and education facilities all through See Differently, formerly the Royal Society for the Blind.

It does not matter whether the dog is a working dog, assistance dog, racing dog or family pet. They are all loved by their owners and an important part of their family. I would be devastated if Freya was stolen and so would my community. This is why I am pleased to be speaking on this bill which delivers on the Labor government's election commitment to increase penalties to deter dog theft, recognising how important dogs are to their human families and the threat of dog-napping in South Australia.

The bill amends the Summary Offences Act 1953 to insert a new summary offence of dog theft in section 47A. This is important as a dog is not like a piece of furniture or a car. They are a living being that is sadly vulnerable to theft. The offence has a maximum penalty of $50,000 or imprisonment for two years. It is intended that the steep maximum penalty for the new offence will have a strong deterrent effect on potential offenders and keep Freya and her canine friends safe.

Freya is not just a beloved family pet. She is an official park sniffer at Oaklands parkrun and children across Gibson are currently colouring in pictures of her as part of my Christmas colouring competition to win passes to the State Aquatic and Leisure Centre. She might not yet be as famous as Dusty, but she is just as loved.

The theft of a dog can currently be dealt with under the general theft offence in section 134 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935, and this bill does not take away that option from South Australia Police if they believe that is the more appropriate offence based on factual circumstances, the strength of the available evidence and the appropriate sentence. The new offence is similar to approaches adopted in New South Wales and the Northern Territory which both provide for a separate summary offence for stealing a dog.

I understand that the cost of dogs—purebred and designer breeds, in particular—has risen considerably due to increased demand and a reduction in supply over the course of the pandemic. Sadly, this has created the opening for offenders to opportunistically take advantage of these circumstances and make improper financial gains from stealing and selling dogs.

We saw earlier this year how owners of seven pit bull puppies were devastated when they were brazenly stolen at Christies Beach. Sweet Pea, a six-year-old labrador, was stolen in a carjacking in the city in September. Simba, a Staffordshire bull terrier labrador cross, was stolen from Chinatown in 2020.

In 2019, the chihuahua companion of a Big Issue vendor was stolen in Rundle Mall. These are just four examples of the dog thefts that happen across South Australia each year, leaving families without their paw friend. I remind all South Australians to ensure that their dogs are microchipped so that they can be quickly returned to them if they are stolen or escape.

The 2021-22 annual report of the Dog and Cat Management Board shows that only 93.2 per cent of dogs at home belonging to an owner were microchipped and, further, only 70.4 per cent of these dogs were desexed. I urge dog owners to desex their family pet and ensure that their dogs are secured in their home or a fenced backyard and, as summer is finally here, never leave them in a car. Freya and all of her paw friends commend this bill to the house.

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE (Port Adelaide—Deputy Premier, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence and Space Industries, Minister for Climate, Environment and Water) (16:58): I am pleased to be able to speak on this bill. Obviously, what happens when one is provided a bill by a member in the other place, a minister in the other place, is that a second reading speech has been written and one duly gives that second reading speech, but I think this closing speech gives me the opportunity to also say a little bit more about what I think about this bill.

In thanking the contribution that has been made by the other two members, I am very grateful and I am aware that there were a couple of others who might have liked to have had an opportunity to speak, but we would like to get this piece of legislation through this session of parliament if possible.

I was the person who pulled together this election policy for animal welfare, amongst various other policies, and I included this on the request of one of our members who was concerned at the number of reports he was reading about dog thefts occurring, particularly in the northern suburbs. Bear in mind this was a time during COVID when people were increasingly confined to barracks, not able to travel, often not even able to go to work as freely as they had wanted to or to study, and people being at home realised just how important it was to have a non-human companion with them, a companion animal.

I am not a cat person, but I know that people do love cats. There are people who love cats; I acknowledge this and in no way wish to show any disrespect for those who do. In fact, as generally regarded as an animal lover, in a sense I love all animals equally. However, I do not love all animals equally because I am very much a dog person, and I am allergic to cats so I have never really got to know a cat.

There is something about a house with a dog that changes it into a home instantly, regardless of who else is part of that family. A dog connects with humans. They are, after all, Canis familiaris because they have been bred over multiple generations alongside humans to no longer be the wolves that try to attack us and bring us down in the wild, if any of you have seen some of those truly horrifying films that describes those occurrences. In fact, they are animals that have lived alongside us, hunted alongside us, kept us warm at night and kept us in companionship.

That was something I think most people have known since time immemorial, but it particularly became something that people were aware of during COVID—to bring myself back to the timing of this election commitment. As that occurred, the supply therefore was under pressure and, unsurprisingly to those who understand economics, the prices went up, particularly for those curious crossbreeds that get the names that used to be associated with celebrity couples and are now associated with celebrity dog breeds, where you jam the two words together and create a new one.

That is not the kind of dog I have ever had. The dogs I have always had have just had bits of various breeds, some of which are not able to be defined. My current dog, my darling dog that we got from the RSPCA about 10 years ago, looks largely like a cavalier. She has the round head, so she is definitely a cavalier, but she has the most enormous and disproportionately large feet, so clearly another breed has made its way in there somewhere and we will never know what.

As prices went up, the kinds of breeds that people find attractive became harder to get hold of. People were desperate to have a dog to walk to get some fresh air during COVID and a companion at home for the children or just for themselves, so we did see this spiralling—at least reporting and, no doubt, truthfully—of these animals being stolen.

The members asked a number of questions relating to this bill, and I do hope that we are able to avoid going into committee by having my answer to the best of my ability during this response. One of them relates to whether this is really an offence that belonged more in the Animal Welfare Act, being analogous, at least in fine if not in time potentially in jail, to section 14(1) of the Animal Welfare Act. My view is that the Attorney-General has got it right in putting it in Summary Offences.

Although I have just waxed lyrical about how these animals are, in fact, members of the family, nonetheless this crime relates to their theft as a property rather than cruelty to them, which could indeed be separately and additionally charged should cruelty occur. Although stealing a much-loved long-term family pet from a family might well be regarded as cruel in itself, in the form of emotional cruelty, the theft of a puppy might not be regarded as cruel, yet nonetheless has done the damage that we are seeking to avoid.

So I think the right place for this is to create a new location in the Summary Offences Act that specifically designates that there is a particular crime that has taken place when you steal a dog from a family, as opposed to any other piece of property, but does not amount to something that would be, I think, able to justified in all cases to exist under the Animal Welfare Act.

Perhaps if I leap to the third point that was raised of the three by the shadow attorney, the question of stealing in the context of dog fights. I am not sure if it was quite articulated as a question but, indeed, should that occur there are separate and additional offences that exist for fighting dogs, as there absolutely should be. That would also be the case should a dog be stolen and then treated cruelly in a way that the RSPCA or the inspector is able to prove and wishes to prosecute. I think that is, as has been demonstrated in the other two jurisdictions, New South Wales and the Northern Territory, existing as a separate offence and is the right one under the Summary Offences Act.

There was then a very interesting discussion from the shadow attorney about homing pigeons. I must admit, not being in fact the Attorney-General, I had not familiarised myself with that section of the act and did not realise that existed as a separate offence already. It is an interesting one, given the peripatetic nature of homing pigeons, although eventually the idea, I presume, is that they home.

In order to home, they have to depart and might spend some time in other locations. The question of at which point you have stolen that pigeon would be an interesting one, and I am not sure whether there have been many cases that have been taken, or any, in fact. That would be interesting for me to inquire about on my own time. However, this exists as a deterrent presumably where, if you find a homing pigeon, you try to put it in an aviary and keep it.

How recently it has been set at $250 and whether there is any appetite in this parliament to increase it is not something that needs to be resolved through this dog theft offence act, I believe. Whether that is sufficient, whether it has ever been tested, I literally have no idea, but it is a question that having been asked may at some point be answered.

What was, I think, probably more to the point was the honourable member's question about the civil remedy component of that section of the act. It was of interest to me that a decision has been made by this parliament at some point that that might constitute a deterrent and presumably also that there might be the need for a civil remedy. I do not understand the world of homing pigeons. I think probably I am most familiar through the film On the Waterfront, which is really old and based in another country, but he had homing pigeons when he was contemplating being a—

Members interjecting:

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: That's true. Does that relate to homing pigeons? That was quite a fantasy film. Anyway, I am being distracted because it is the last day, but this is nonetheless a serious matter and the Premier has arrived.

As to the question of civil remedy, I do not know much about the case of homing pigeons, but whether we are talking about is in fact pigeon fanciers stealing each others pigeons and therefore the necessity to make good on stealing a particularly good pigeon might make sense of a civil penalty. I am not sure a civil penalty necessarily makes sense generally in theft. We do not have it as something that is generally the case, that if you steal from somebody the judge can not only charge you with a crime and impose a penalty but also might then impose a civil penalty.

Because that is not generally something that exists within the Summary Offences Act—I am assuming that is the case; a civil penalty with stealing is not generally something that exists—then we had not contemplated having it exist with this particular offence. I am not sure that it would create an additional deterrent on top of the $50,000 and the threat of imprisonment. I am also not sure how realistic it is that any civil penalty would in fact be recoverable. That is not a path we have chosen to go down in bringing forward this piece of legislation. Of course, any member is entitled, but I hope does not in order to get this legislation through, to bring in an amendment. With those words, I commend this bill to the chamber.

Bill read a second time.

Third Reading

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE (Port Adelaide—Deputy Premier, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence and Space Industries, Minister for Climate, Environment and Water) (17:08): I move:

That this bill be read a third time.

Bill read a third time and passed.