Australian greyhound racing needs a new way ahead

Certainly times are tough at the moment. But there will be no better opportunity to stand back and evaluate how we are doing and whether there is a better way to push the greyhound industry ahead. The circumstances will get better in a year or two but there is a great doubt about our ability to improve the industry's efficiency and effectiveness when that happens. Here is why.

Not for the first time, I got a wake-up call from former headmaster and NRL coach Roy Masters (SMH, 18 July 2020). He was talking about the kerfuffle in the various equestrian organisations and more generally when he wrote:

Sport Australia, in a push under chair John Wylie, has sought to modernise the governance of Olympic sports. “Australia is the most competitive sports commercial market in the world. Olympic sports' revenues have been going backwards relative to professional sports, so it's more important now than ever that their structure enables them to be well-run, competitive and stable,” Wylie said.

Traditional federated structures of Olympic sports have their advantages but too often have led to a revolving door in the boardroom, infighting, scarce resources spent on duplicated , a lack of national sponsorships and even a single national membership data base.

Without taking a breath you could really substitute greyhound racing – or any racing – for the above sports. It, too, is struggling for relevance under outmoded structures for the same reasons some Olympic sports are not making headway – states battling states, lots of duplication and waste, and so on. To which you can add that a magnificent animal is not getting due credit for what it is and what it has done for thousands of years.

It is not a coincidence that all those administrations are run either by bureaucrats or people who are forced into a strict bureaucratic environment. Process is king while outcomes are rarely measured. Success is measured by clerical neatness and the ability to carry out the Government's wishes. Yet the fact is that greyhound racing is a commercial business under pressure and which desperately needs to modernise. But how could it? Strategic Plans are indeterminate waffle and soon forgotten. There are no measures to define success, other than don't rock the boat or upset the Minister.

So what has come out in the wash?

(Here I use the term Greyhounds Australasia but note that GA has no power of its own and relies on member States to tell it what to do. All power resides with those States).

  • We have a Greyhounds Australasia office that devised a fresh ban on and cobalt, utilising an unproven rationale plucked from the thoroughbreds and an unscientific approach using tests from only one of dogs (but only as to amounts present, not to their effect). Such a policy has been sharply criticised by some scientists and a group of industry vets.
  • The same GA commissioned KPMG to survey breeding needs and come up with a legislated maximum number for each state (ie in a misguided effort to supposedly reduce euthanasia). No report has ever been published and no State has made decisions along those lines. Money down the drain.
  • GA wrote a confidential letter to all States proposing a one third reduction of all racing activity – a monstrous change to be sure, again with the fanciful aim of reducing euthanasia. The NSW CEO passed this letter on to the McHugh Commission where it became the “bible” for quotes used by all and sundry, including the NSW Premier to justify his ban. It included figures which were not actually wrong but were poorly written and mis-used. The thousands of allegedly “euthanased” dogs were not that at all but simply dogs whose records could not be located. GA and the States have failed to counter that misconception.
  • Soon after, “overbreeding” was poorly researched by an outsider (Milne and also Perna) and wrongly found to be a reason for alleged excessive dog numbers and therefore a cause of excessive euthanasia. In fact, breeding numbers had been in steady decline for many years and dramatically so following the 2015 episodes. Even so, State CEOs and government-appointed reviewers in other States blindly accepted the erroneous analysis (although GRV later recanted, but only indirectly).
  • The progressive fall in breeding numbers paralleled increased race numbers from 2010, thereby leading to a rise in empty boxes, while newly-introduced slow dogs caused disruption to field quality, to betting outcomes and to gamblers' habits. Income has sometimes been maintained but only by improved handouts by State governments. In response to the continuing drop in breeding, Victoria reduced some fees and NSW ran a review of grading policies – neither of which appears to have had any great relevance or worth. No serious research into owners' or breeders' needs or actions has been conducted – a basic management failure.
  • Over time, greyhound administrations (and the other two codes as well) have progressively ceded power to TABs, for which they were paid a capital amount. Then followed a concerted effort to ban operations by Betfair, a move disliked by customers (and which failed). Then by an equally heavy move to ban NT-based bookmakers (which also failed). Then by reversing that view and welcoming them to the fold, albeit usually at cheaper commission rates than TABs. The online bookmakers now cater for over half of all public betting, despite the fact that they can and do make up their own rules, which rarely help their customers. In short, the tail is wagging the dog. Racing codes now serve only to supply cannon fodder to TABs and corporate bookies, often competing on SKY with miscellaneous racing from around the world.
  • A laissez faire approach by administrations is now leading to a degrading of breeding standards and racing quality as more and more risky ultra-short races dominate the programs (a partial exception for Victoria). Any old dog will do – a feature which has been picked up by TABs as they add more Mystery bets and unwinnable boxed bet recommendations to their product line. Tipsters have kept pace, too, by suggesting serious picks for un-raced Maidens, for example. Over-racing is also becoming more common, as periodically noted by . Nothing has been planned; rather it has grown up like Topsy.
  • The absence of any meaningful national organisation has led to a hotchpotch of rules, regulations and racing practices from state to state as well as the intervention of anti-racing groups and non-racing government departments into the minutiae of the business of racing. It has not helped that regulatory and commercial sectors of State authorities are often now under different bosses with sometimes differing objectives. This lack of consistency and lobbying power not only leaves gaps but makes any local efforts less effective. One outcome has been the legislated shutdown of racing in following objections by a minor political party.
  • By far the biggest influence on the successful operation of greyhound racing is a lack of appreciation of the breed amongst the general public. Too many people do not like what the greyhound is or what it does. (Hint: to stop greyhound racing would remove one of the prime reasons for the breed's existence). Efforts to combat this feeling are too small and too spasmodic – yet another shortcoming fuelled by the absence of national impetus.
  • For five years now, the code has lacked a comprehensive set of national statistics. Even the content of state figures varies from one to the other. If there is another national industry which does not publish Australia-wide data, I have yet to hear of it. How on earth can an industry flourish when it does not know how it is going, especially in the competitive world we operate in?

All of these examples are due to a failure of the management system. In its entirety – whether clubs, States or GA – it is comprised of committees of management served by so-called CEOs who have little or no formal power. Automatically, this means the lowest common denominator principle applies, vision is absent and innovation is discouraged.

State governments are no better, sticking their fingers in when they smell a vote at risk and appointing board members which better suit their cause. Claims of staying at arms' length are meaningless. Likewise, the official reviewers, usually lawyers or public servants, address the obvious and skate around the desperate need to examine the corporate structure to learn why previous set-ups have failed. Who dropped the ball, how and why?

In short, nobody is responsible, at least until the newspaper headlines scream for action, as occurred with live baiting when they all got sacked. Even then, the only answer was to play musical chairs, continue with the same old structures and add more staff and more regulations (in the turbulent Queensland climate that applied to the board as well).

We are getting close to 100 years of mechanical hare racing but the only real change has been to eliminate proprietary controls – first in NSW and much later in Victoria, pre- and post-WW2. None of the chosen options have really worked, mainly because the buck never stopped anywhere and fiefdoms dominated. Business disciplines went missing, introversion dominates and “she'll be right” attitudes proliferate.

Major is the only possible solution.

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