New Broom For Queensland?
Written By Bruce Teague Thursday 6th October 2011
Queensland, not normally noted for reformist ideas, is now seeing a push for a commercial organisation to replace Racing Queensland Ltd as the controlling body.
Brenton Wilson, a committeeman at QGBOTA, has analysed the code’s woes in a paper published in Greyhounds Qld Magazine, edited by David Brasch. He wants to see a “private company ... carry out the day to day management” of Queensland greyhounds. However, the private company would also attend to “capital works and project management”, which are hardly day to day issues.
It would report to a Management Committee made up of various industry stakeholders. Immediately, that risks confining its outlook to traditional matters. You could title that “We want initiative but not too much”.
Chief amongst the company’s objectives would be generating new growth and developing three new tracks, two of which would have dual one-turn and circle operations. Financing would come partly from a mortgage on greyhound’s half share of the Albion Park complex.
The general idea is not a new one. Some commentators have called for comparable changes in the thoroughbred code. For example, Patrick Smith in The Australian claims racing needs to be run by an independent Commission rather than by vested interests as is the case now. The lack of consistency amongst states was highlighted by Craig Young of the Sydney Morning Herald last year when he asked, “Is there a more dysfunctional industry than Australian horse racing?”
None of this seems to get any traction, no doubt because all power is in the hands of state racing ministers and their respective departments. Ministers know any changes will upset some people (ie votes), while bureaucrats are well aware that altering the status quo increases their workloads and endangers their empires.
Yet the evidence is mounting that racing cannot keep up. The nonsensical ruckus over the arrival of NT bookmakers and Betfair is a case in point. Rather than recognising that the world was moving in other directions, the Australian racing establishment, mostly aided by their respective governments, tried to ignore them, rubbish them and then ban them legally. None of that worked, of course, and now the newcomers are all part of the framework, albeit still in some dispute and confused by some errors and dubious recommendations in a recent Productivity Commission report.
Importantly, betting turnover has been falling for two decades in real terms on a like for like basis. Only extra meetings, more mug gamblers and the impetus from NT bookmaker activity have saved the industry’s bacon. Sadly, virtually all of the extra racing is of poor quality, thereby downgrading the sport in general.
The underlying cause for that is that the industry has not coped well with the dramatic fall in week-to-week track attendances and the parallel rise in offcourse turnover at licensed clubs or via the phone and internet. In short, it has lost, and is still losing, knowledgeable punters and replaced them with poker machine refugees. Neither racing bosses or Wilson’s paper pays much attention to this point yet that’s where all the funds come from.
Australian greyhound racing is a mixed bag administratively. Two states – WA and Tasmania – are fairly directly under the control of government instrumentalities. Tasmania and Queensland have tricode administrations. WA allows each code to do its own thing operationally while being dependent on the tricode RWWA for funds. Victoria’s board is government-appointed but merit-oriented and reasonably independent, as is SA’s board. The NSW board is hopelessly conflicted because members come from specific industry sectors, some elected, some ex officio.
Queensland used to have a supposedly independent board but it never seemed quite that in practice. Like NSW and WA, it also mounted a hate campaign against Betfair. Nowadays the single greyhound member of the Racing Queensland board would have to talk very loudly to get a point across, especially with a longstanding gallops-based chairman (another who vigorously opposed Betfair) issuing proclamations and tortuous media releases.
Over-riding all these variations is the fact that in racing decision making is always the responsibility of a committee (ie the board), not of the management. No commercial organisation could possibly prosper under those conditions.
All of which makes a commission with fully independent members and a modern management structure look all the more attractive.
An alternative view is that you need “dog men” on the board (they never say women for some reason) in order to appreciate what is going on. But this misunderstands the proper function of a board. Its job is, or should be, to set major policy, control major expenditure and hire and fire the CEO. Members do not need to know how to train a dog any more than a BHP director needs to know how to run a blast furnace. But they do need to be able to ask the right questions at the right time.
(Indeed, there are a few examples of state CEOs coming from way outside the industry. Queensland alone has had two in recent years, NSW one).
Some things they might ask are who are our customers, what are they thinking and what are they likely to do in the future. Sensible answers to such questions would almost certainly have avoided the unholy mess the industry got into following the arrival of NT bookies and Betfair. Indeed, a creative approach could well have put the industry into a much more profitable situation than we have today.
Notably, Australian Institute of Sport recommendations, the AFL, ARL and others have already gone down the independent commission road with a fair degree of success and a lot more transparency. More sports will follow. Why should racing ignore those advances?
Incidentally, the Wilson paper’s call for three new SEQ tracks, made up of five different circuits, begs the question of how they will be properly utilised. The two existing circuits are regularly short of numbers as it is and are padding out with squibs’ races over 331m as well as disruptive 400s.
But which is the chicken and which the egg? The tracks do need attention, and a one-turn facility would be good as well, but the main problem in Queensland is either a shortage of dogs or an oversupply of races – or both. Isolate the reasons for that shortcoming and you are half way home.