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Today I spoke to Bill 19 – The Animal Health Act during second reading. This is a very important piece of legislation that is long overdue. As Nicholas Simons (the NDP Agriculture critic and MLA for Powell River-Sunshine Coast) noted the day before:

“I have to say that the basic principles of the act, in terms of the attempt or the goal to ensure that we do everything that we can to prevent disease in our animals and to ensure that the spread of those diseases is kept to a minimum…. I think that the priorities that are outlined and the purposes of this bill are essentially and fundamentally good.

I should point out, as well, that this bill actually does a few other things besides those things that the minister mentioned. They include the repeal of a few other pieces of legislation that have perhaps outgrown their usefulness, or perhaps outgrown their relevance to today — modern day and age. Those include the Fur Farm Act, the Game Farm Act and the Bee Act, not to mention the Animal Disease Control Act. Those acts will, by effect of this legislation, be repealed, and this legislation before us today will take their place.”

Below is the text of my speech. Some might be interested to skip to the bottom to see why I called division (i.e. standing vote) on moving the bill to the committee stage. A standing vote is the only opportunity you get to see how every individual MLA votes. Second Reading of Bill 19 was approved unanimously.

I would like to start by acknowledging the minister’s efforts to provide an update to this legislation pertaining to animal health and disease control, but I want to also thank his staff for the extremely informative and substantive briefing that I received a few days ago.

It’s obvious from that briefing that much effort and much passion and much hard work was put into writing this piece of legislation, and I want to personally acknowledge those who played a role in getting it to this point.

The health of animals and control of animal-related diseases and outbreaks is an important issue to address, especially in today’s society, where global travel and trade continue to expand. Given this reality, I believe in most ways Bill 19 offers an important step forward. For example, increasing the number of reportable diseases so as to include the updated understanding of the diseases that affect livestock and requiring ranchers and farmers to provide better training for employees will no doubt update and improve disease control mechanisms in our province.

I do understand there have been significant concerns raised over some aspects of this bill, particularly in its previous form a couple of years ago. Let me give a specific example. I understand right now that if I owned a poultry farm and I found a diseased poultry, it might be in my interest to send that poultry to the United States for testing, because if I sent that piece of poultry in British Columbia for testing, the results of that test might get out. And if that test was faulty, panic in the public might ensue.

If that test was sent to the U.S., I don’t have to worry about that test getting out, unless it is a reportable disease. But then the only way the B.C. government would find out about that is when border control measures were put in place between the Canada-U.S. border. This seems wrong.

I recognize that there is a problem with the freedom-of-information aspect of this. I recognize that government is trying to manage its way, to navigate this very difficult problem. That being said, I think the ministry has taken the appropriate steps to help ensure a necessary flow of information for the purpose of ensuring public safety.

First, there has been much discussion over the restrictions this bill imposes on public access to information, as has been articulated by the Information and Privacy Commissioner. There’s concern that this bill will limit the information that can be released to the public during a potential animal disease outbreak, as I mentioned in my example a few minutes ago. In particular, this bill would exempt six specific areas of information from the purview of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

I understand why this has attracted so much attention, and I fully support the independent oversight that is required when we are dealing with privacy issues. However, I also feel that we must establish a system that promotes the timely reporting of animal-related diseases so that the necessary response can be undertaken and the greater public interest can be served.

Pending further analysis in the committee stage, I feel that this legislation before us may strike the necessary balance between ensuring information can be made public and providing adequate protection of personal information so as to promote the self-reporting of potential animal-based diseases.

Secondly, the amount of power that a health inspector appears to be granted in emergency situations has also received some criticism. In the event that B.C.’s chief veterinarian declares an emergency, the act seems to provide an inspector with the necessary powers for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information. It’s my understanding that these powers are in line, in fact, with those already found in the Public Health Act and are simply in place to ensure the ministry is able to take appropriate action in the event of an emergency.

Finally, some have raised concerns that the maximum penalties for an offence proposed by this bill may be too punitive. It’s obvious, of course, that the previous maximum penalty of $2,000 in a case that has grave and profound public health concerns is undoubtedly lenient by today’s standards. These new maximum penalties again appear to be in line with animal health acts in other jurisdictions to which the legislation is supposed to bring us in harmony with.

While there are some details of this bill to explore further in committee, I find this to be a substantial and positive update to a critical piece of legislation, and I’ll certainly be supporting this as we move to the next stage of debate.

I would like to say now that I will be calling for division on this bill, and I’d like to say why, if I can. Too often the media only report the negative things that happen in this Legislature. Today was a very negative experience for me, listening to the discussion back and forth on issues that are of great importance to British Columbians. I recognize you’re going to call me out of order here, hon. Speaker. But I want people to recognize that there are times in this place where all parties agree on its substantial pieces of legislation. That is the important message that needs to get out there.

This is a substantial piece of legislation. This is an important piece of legislation, and British Columbians need to know that while people have concerns, all parties are supporting it and moving it forward through committee stage.

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