What can we hope to achieve from all the ongoing investigations?
Naturally, and with some justification, publicity over the next few months will concentrate on live baiting and related issues, which is fair enough. But that’s far from the most important aspect of the investigations.
To varying degrees the review teams will also be considering whether greyhound racing is put together the best way. Governance and organisational structures will come under the blowtorch, first to see how the widespread abuses came to pass and then to look more broadly at how the industry is managed.
This not only overlaps with the statutory review in NSW but is emphasised in the brief the government issued to the Special Commission of Inquiry. It wants a report on whether it should “permit the continuation of a greyhound industry in NSW that is sustainable and provides an ongoing economic and social contribution to the State”. You can hardly get more basic that that.
Even Queensland, which is hard to follow at times, wants to get feedback on such matters as “the frequency of racing for an individual greyhound”, which this column has been agitating about for years, and “the current rules which relate to lures”, which may bring the follow-on-lure into focus again. However, given there have been no changes to board membership and staff (aside from the side-lining of the chief steward) the prospect of the same people reviewing their own decisions is not encouraging.
Somewhat belatedly, SA is said to be launching deeper investigations into possible abuses. Little has been heard there, possibly due to the necessary involvement of police in animal cruelty matters. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to think live or dead baiting in some form is not present in all areas of the country.
There are two common threads in all these discussions. First, the industry has a big job to do in cleaning up the attitudes of its members. Despite many protestations, it has always been clear too many participants either cheat or walk very close to the line, and think nothing of it. Of course, that applies not just to greyhounds but to horses and humans as well. It’s a question of the culture of the industry and will take quite a few years to dampen down. Even then, perfection is not a likely outcome so it has to be dealt with as an ongoing process.
Second, there are serious shortcomings in the way greyhound racing is administered. Indeed, perhaps the word “administer” is the problem. It implies the job is to move pieces of paper from one box to another. Whether it is the right piece of paper or the right box is not as important as doing the job neatly.
As an illustration, the Dapto club has more than once won an award from GRNSW as Club of the Year despite it possessing one of the most disruptive tracks in the country (despite being recently re-built) and a motley collection of buildings which has grown up like Topsy over 50 years or so, even though millions of dollars have found their way there. Today, yahoos leaning over the fence still block the view of 520m starters. But no doubt its books are neatly kept.
The alternative to “administration” is, of course, “management”. One implies nothing more than processing words, the other demands objectives, best options, innovation, marketing, auditing of results and adjusting plans to suit a changing environment. Wonderful words in annual reports and five year plans are meaningless unless people are brought to account for their actions and predictions.
Yet good management is near impossible to achieve in racing as all authority and responsibility rests with a committee where traditionally an attempt to design a horse comes up with a camel. So-called CEOs have no direct responsibility save only for matters delegated to them by the board. Even then, we never know what they are.
In short, it’s not so much the personnel as the system in which they operate. This system is broken.
So, will the review teams come up with good answers? I have my doubts because of one major influence — they are all dominated by lawyers and policemen. Coincidentally, lawyers have been long in charge of most of the existing state boards.
Now lawyers are fantastically important people, mostly highly skilled and experienced at what they do. But, for the most part, that does not include operating a commercial enterprise, which is precisely what racing is. Dotting “I”s, crossing “T”s and assessing guilt are things they are trained to do. Setting a course for a modern business is not their strength. Few have experience running a modern multi-tiered commercial organisation. That and other shortfalls are coming out in the wash now.
Consequently, the reviews will tend to offer partial solutions at best. They are also likely to vary, one from the other, and so create more doubts. We may hope not, but the scattergun pattern of state racing administrations over the years offers no confidence that consistency will emerge, much less provide a platform for growth and development. Greyhounds Australasia, for example, is pretty much a disaster in that respect.
Notably, cash is a problem. Nationally, income in real terms has remained static except for irregular boosts from state governments after fiddling with tax and commission rates. As we speak, NSW, which has long been on the breadline, is waiting hopefully to see the government cut betting tax to more competitive levels. Queensland racing has just recently benefitted from a lucrative change to the TattsBet contract, notwithstanding a continuing decline in all other performance indicators.
The long term failure to generate any natural increases in turnover reveals an industry whose focus is to keep things tidy and occasionally put out fires. Attending to customer needs has run a long last. It has all the imprints of a cargo cult mentality.
Ideally, post-reviews, all the state Racing Ministers will get together as a matter of urgency and come up with co-ordinated reforms that better suit the modern world.
Meantime, watch the upcoming reports closely and put in your two cents worth if you do not consider them progressive enough. It will be a long time before you get another chance.