Parliamentary Inquiry Ventures In To A Minefield
Written By Bruce Teague Monday 2nd September 2013
Just before an election is a funny time for minority parties to start an inquiry into greyhound racing but that’s what the NSW Upper House is doing. It’s also interesting that the government has agreed to let it run as proposed, which suggests the Racing Minister, George Souris, is happy to see someone stir the pot. Mr Souris’ National Party is not well known for its adventurous behaviour. He represents the area around Muswellbrook in the Upper Hunter.
But will it achieve anything? Normally, official inquiries are organised so that few surprises emerge. Since neither the government or the opposition are in charge this one could be different.
The main push is coming from Dr John Kaye (Greens), who was appointed to fill a vacancy, and Mr Robert Borsak (Shooters), both highly qualified professional men in their own right in engineering and accounting respectively. However, neither has previously claimed any interest or experience in the racing industry.
Their claims, and the terms of reference, cover two broad areas: animal welfare and management practices.
However, the preamble to the establishment of the inquiry contains largely unsubstantiated claims, silly statements and innuendo. It further states the inquiry “is essential to address the public loss of confidence in the industry’s management”. There are some complaints from participants, yes, but there is no basis for this claim in the broad sense. Nevertheless, it would be good to learn exactly how the public do regard greyhound racing, whether they are players, punters or the average man in the street.
Should the inquiry wish to go down that road, nothing less than a professionally conducted research project would be needed. Anecdotal evidence and submissions from vested interests do not cut the mustard.
Do abuses of animal welfare principles occur? Of course. Odd ones have been documented over the years and trainers have been punished as a result. But many thousands of dogs were well cared for at the same time. In this context, greyhound racing is no different to any other part of society, whether involving animals or humans. Do we ban football or fast bowling because injuries occur?
The key is whether authorities are reacting well enough to any abuses. The inquiry may well bring that out but it should ensure the evidence is complete, balanced and professionally reviewed. After all, the industry invests a large amount of resources in supervising races, drug use and inspecting trainers’ kennels. If officials are not doing a good enough job then we should hear about it. Once again, only a forensic, independent investigation will uncover the facts.
However, it is interesting to learn from an American example in the state of Massachusetts. In response to community pressure, the government ran a plebiscite to determine whether it should continue to licence greyhound racing. In the event, the NO vote just won, largely because anti-racing lobbies (to both horses and dogs) carried the day, and two tracks were shut down. But a key piece of evidence showed that the percentage of injuries to greyhounds was lower than that in the state’s kindergartens. Emotions ruled the roost, rather than facts.
The issue of management practices is a different story. It involves both the structure of the industry and the way the incumbents do their job.
All the evidence tells us that racing in general has been losing its way for the last 30 years. Breeding numbers are flat or declining – for both horses and greyhounds – at a time when more low class dogs are dredged up and more races are programmed. Betting turnover, the industry’s lifeblood, has been flat out keeping up with inflation. Wagering on races has seen a fall from 50% to around 10% in market share. Both punters and gamblers have been turning to other options, such as sports betting, casinos and poker machines. The drop in racecourse attendances due to the attractions of neighbourhood SKY pictures has resulted in a decrease in knowledge of the finer aspects of racing – hence the rise of mug gamblers as a proportion of the total. Skill is disappearing. Tipsters now dominate the market.
More recently, betting turnover has been refreshed by the addition of new operators (NT bookmakers and Betfair) but they have done little more than make up for the continuing downturn in traditional outlets such as TABs.
Racing management has reacted poorly, or not at all, to these trends. Indeed, initially NSW greyhound authorities strongly opposed the introduction of the newcomers, even though evidence from the UK flatly contradicted their views. Nearly all other governments, racing authorities and TABs did likewise. Further, efforts to adopt new marketing ventures have been absent or ineffectual. Some local community promotions and a push to increase placement of retired greyhounds have been worthy efforts but lack sufficient impact to make a difference in main street Australia. A big part of the problem is that the industry is national in character but state-centric in operation.
The root cause of this failure has to be sheeted down to the way authorities are set up and the way they operate.
Raceclubs are managed by amateur committees. State authorities are managed by paid committees. Both are part-time. Neither is able to compete adequately in today’s challenging commercial environment. In either case it seems that neatness is all that counts. Effectiveness is irrelevant. Yes, the state auditor checks the books at the end of the year but only to make sure the arithmetic is correct. No-one evaluates whether the use of the cash was worthwhile.
For example, breeding subsidies go to local owners and studs (which are often highly profitable units) but no evidence is ever produced that the investments generate a realistic dividend. They are just politicised handouts. One state is much the same as another.
Currently, subsidies are going to dogs winning distance races yet the justifications, objectives and outcomes of these projects are never stated let alone audited.
Of bigger importance are the huge amounts that go into the construction of new or re-built tracks. For example, millions of dollars of capital have gone to track developments at Wentworth Park, Bulli, Maitland, Gosford, The Gardens (Newcastle), Dapto and Richmond but all have produced either worse results or repeated errors that pre-existed. Dapto remains a disruptive track (hence the falls already nominated by the inquiry), the flat first turn at Richmond still throws off runners, while Bulli is probably worse. Maitland became more biased after its first turn was changed while the turn into the straight sees dogs wandering off towards the outside fence. Both Gosford and The Gardens had obvious design faults, some of which had to be fixed just months after opening. Casino and Lismore are long overdue for complete re-building.
Not only do these faults involve the use of scarce funds but they must also affect the safety of runners. Interference and falls necessarily put dogs at risk, both physically and emotionally. They also turn off punters looking for consistency.
At the core of these troubles is the absence of serious study of the science of track design. No-one has ever bothered to do any homework, despite considerable pleading to establish an expert panel to look into it. Guesswork and personal opinions therefore dominate. Engineering firms draw up lovely bits of paper but have no actual knowledge of the racing subject.
GRNSW has not only declined to take those steps but has used flawed reasoning to justify its actions – eg stating (in respect to Maitland) “such measures have been successful elsewhere” when no such evidence is available, rather the contrary.
In the end, who is to call state authorities to account? Nominally, the Minister and his department have a duty there but it is rare to see them interfere. The “arm’s length” principle is quoted, although sometimes ignored when it suits the political need. Otherwise, racing “shareholders” are able only to complain from a distance but are seldom able to influence outcomes. Ombudsmen are absent and the Integrity Auditor has only very limited coverage.
Of course, the Minister appoints board members in a system where the approach varies from one government to another. More usually, that involves telling the industry it has to look after itself and so people with past racing exposure get the job. For example, previous NSW boards were wholly comprised of club representatives and the like, ensuring a single or dual dominant force ruled the roost. Conflict of interest was massive. The last changeover altered things somewhat yet every member of the current board has some previous formal involvement with a racing organisation. It has no fully independent advice available to it.
The fact that unjustifiable projects and poor track standards have persisted tells us that excellence is a long way from being achieved. It is undoubtedly one reason why there has been a long and continuing history of dog migration from NSW to Victoria, especially for better dogs.
Indeed, a current extraordinary proposal by GRNSW seeks to remove the Tweed Heads club from NSW and deposit it in Queensland. There are no stated reasons for this change although the Queensland authority has welcomed the idea. How the reduced tax income would be welcomed by the NSW Treasurer is unknown. How the state would handle its contractual obligations to Tabcorp, which runs the Tweed tote, is unknown. How Queensland’s Tattsbet could legally take over racing in an interstate location is unknown, too. And how it gets around constitutional requirements is an even bigger mystery.
In business terms, the racing system has long been broken yet there are no moves whatever to bring about reform. For that, state governments must bear the responsibility. The inquiry might well look not just to other racing jurisdictions (all tuned to the 1950s) but also to numerous primary industry boards and management structures which have been compelled to upgrade to modern commercial standards – wool, wheat, meat and livestock, etc, etc.
Greyhound racing has plenty of administration. What it lacks is modern management.