After months of discussion and consultation on animal welfare, the ACT Government has introduced a bill that recognises animals as sentient beings, as part of a broad package of reforms.
The new legislation introduces a range of new, specific offences for failing to take appropriate care of an animal, while also negotiating the issues of pet licensing and assistance animals.
The duty of care offences range from failing to provide an animal with water or shelter through to abandoning an animal, as well as offences for hitting or kicking an animal.
Penalties for cruelty and aggravated cruelty have also been toughened, ownership bans can be enforced, and new powers are proposed to seize animals.
A new offence will be introduced in the bill where a dog is confined for 24 hours without exercise having been provided. This does not apply to someone who keeps their dog in their yard, house or apartment without the opportunity to walk them every day; it will apply in situations where a dog is kept in an area where it cannot move.
Pet businesses will also need to be licensed within six months of the legislation being passed.
In addition, the bill outlines a regulatory framework for assistance animals, dealing with the recognition and training of assistance animals and their right of access to public places and premises. Restaurants and cafes and other public premises that deny a person accompanied by an accredited assistance animal entry will face steep penalties.
Minister for City Services Chris Steel said that the legislation ensures the ACT has contemporary and effective animal welfare laws.
“The science tells us that animals are sentient, they feel emotion and pain, and we are seeking to recognise that in law.
“People have duty to care for the mental and the physical welfare of the animals in their care,” he said.
Shadow Minister for Urban Services Nicole Lawder MLA said Canberrans do not need the government to tell them how to care for their pets.
Ms Lawder said the “radical laws” tabled target responsible pet owners and “turn them into criminals”.
“Currently, a person convicted of animal cruelty in the ACT will face jail time and a $15,000 fine. This is an appropriate response to abhorrent behaviour,” she said.
“What is not appropriate is for the Labor Party to change the definition of animal cruelty and dictate how often people must walk their dogs, how many dogs they walk and how they are groomed.”
The exposure draft of this bill was publicly released for comment in late 2018.
During the consultation process, 120 individuals and 30 businesses and organisations provided submissions, including peak organisations like the RSPCA.
RSPCA ACT CEO Michelle Robertson is in favour of many amendments in the bill, in particular the emphasis on the recognition of animals as sentient beings.
“Understanding and recognising animal sentience is important to help identify the needs of animals and to assess their welfare in different circumstances,” Ms Robertson said.