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Speech: Hide - NZ Companion Animal Conference

Speech to NZ Companion Animal Conference, Auckland

Hon Rodney Hide, Minister of Local Government
Tuesday 6 October 2009

Good morning, and thank you for your invitation to join you here today.

I stand for freedom. I take the view, and apply it as Minister, that less government is good government. I think government should leave people as free as possible.

I believe hand-in-hand with individual freedom comes personal responsibility.
Too many people want to be free to do as they please but then aren’t prepared to accept the consequences of their own decisions and actions. They prefer to offload the consequences to others.

The fact is we can’t enjoy individual freedom unless we also accept personal responsibility.

This belief is probably more popular in the abstract than in everyday life.

Faced with any problem, an awful lot of people immediately think that ‘there should be a law against it’. And an awful lot of legislators, listening to the people as they should, agree, and pass a law against it. Sometimes, this law works, and things get better. But mostly it doesn’t.

I think the lowering of road deaths is an example of stronger laws and heavier enforcement producing a good result. Sure we have had to accept random breath tests, but our roads are undoubtedly safer as a result. That’s a small price to pay for reducing the carnage on our roads.

My belief in the need for individual freedom and personal responsibility impacts directly on my job as Minister of Local Government, which includes consideration of the country’s dog laws.

I want to announce today that I have asked officials to begin thinking about a first-principles review of the dog laws.
I have not asked that this be a priority, because I think the government has more important things to do. But I expect that sometime in 2011, you may be asked for your views.

In the meantime, the present laws will apply, although I hope that local authorities will work hard to ensure the emphasis is on freedom, rather than restriction.

I do not know what will emerge from such a first-principles review. In the lead-up to it, we can all do some thinking. Here’s mine: John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century advocate of freedom, was responsible for what we know as the ‘harm principle’. It says 'the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection'.

Mill said this applied even if interference in someone’s liberty 'will make him happier; because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise'.

Mill did think that there was one justification for interference in liberty - 'The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is [answerable] to society, is that which concerns others ... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign'.

Mill also excluded those in need of care from this, especially children - 'Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury'.

So those are the principles that provide the basis of my thinking about the dog laws.
Dogs belong to someone and they are their owner’s responsibility.

I believe that dog owners should be free to enjoy the companionship of their dogs and that their freedom should only be constrained if they or their dog interferes with the rights of others. I would go further, in fact, to say 'significantly interferes with the rights of others'.

I believe too that dog owners should accept full responsibility for their dogs. I think these two principles go a long way to clearing up the onerous muddle of our existing dog laws.

Let me be more specific. I think it is clear that people have a right to be protected in their own property from wandering dogs, or from dogs barking so they can be heard on other people’s property over a significant period, or unreasonable hours.

I think people should be protected from dogs who bite them, or push them over, or act in a way that makes reasonable people with some experience of dogs feel threatened with attack.

I think drivers should not have to face wandering dogs on busy roads.

I think it is reasonable that people whose dogs soil public or other people’s private property should clean it up.

I think farmers have every right to shoot dogs that pose a threat to stock on their farms.

But I am not sure that people should be protected from dogs running on a beach off the leash, or from dogs on private property marked with clear warnings about the dogs, or from people owning a large number of dogs on private property, or from being approached by a dog.

I am not sure that people with an irrational fear, however real, of dogs, have a right to require the physical restraint of all dogs in public places.

I worry that councils take dog regulation too far. I congratulate Wellington City Council for rejecting a recent serious suggestion from its officials to require those walking dogs to not only have proof of the dog’s registration, and a leash attached to the dog, but to also carry a plastic bag to be produced on demand. I am not sure what was to happen on case of the defence 'I had one but I used it'.

As John Stuart Mill pointed out, special consideration should be given to children.
In one recent case a small dog attacked a young girl who poked her nose through its gate. The dog bit the girl’s nose.
I think that even among those advocating strongly for property rights, few would say the right of the property owner outweighed the right of the girl to reasonable safety.

Even those most in favour of restricting the rights of property owners would find it hard to think of a law or regulation that would remove all such risk, other than banning dogs.

The government has decided not to invest additional funding in a programme aimed at educating children about dog safety. It’s not a priority for spending. But I have approved the continuation of the existing programme within Department baselines, and I’m pleased that councils are beginning to take over and use the education material themselves.

Good law is not made on the basis of emotion. Good law is not made on the basis of unclear facts.

I am concerned that some key elements of the present dog laws were made in this way.

Microchipping and the dogs’ database provide some help to owners who lose their dogs, and assist councils in keeping track of dangerous or menacing dogs that are moved from area to area. We also get some useful data about dogs and their breeds that I hope the private sector accesses and makes use of.

But is it good value for money? Does it help us deal with the worst criminal use of dogs by gangs? I’ll be looking for real evidence in any review of our dog control laws.

Dogs are now more controlled in most cities than ever before. Dog owners are also more controlled, and their rights to enjoy their dogs have been restricted.

Is the balance right? And should that call be made at central or local government level?
The dog laws themselves allow councils to make their own decisions about dogs. There is anecdotal evidence that councils have restricted dog owners to an extent that goes beyond the removal of significant threats to others.

Councils should remember that dog ownership is an important property right, and the free exercise of that right should be restricted not to remove all possible risk, but to remove significant threats to others.

Their challenge is to hold irresponsible dog owners to account and not to put onerous restrictions on responsible dog owners.

Too often we restrict the rights of the responsible many for the irresponsible few - and in that process we never actually deal to the irresponsible few.

I also look forward to seeing the thinking of the new Auckland Council and its network of local boards on dog policy. The local boards will be close to their communities, and I hope good dog policies will be developed as a result.

Dog laws are not a priority for the government. But we hope to have the time in office to deal with lesser priorities as well as those big issues we are grappling with now.

Clear thinking and good discussion of basic principles will help make better law, and perhaps less law. Thank you.


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