Unintended Consequences

When introducing new policies or regulations the Commonwealth government is bound to prepare a “Regulatory Impact Assessment” designed to show how the change affects everyone.

It’s fallen into disuse, according to Henry Ergas (The Australian, 12 August) as Julia Gillard’s crowd is bypassing the process by telling the review body that it’s an election commitment, therefore it must go through automatically.

The outcome, says Ergas, is that “the public (is) deprived of any systematic assessment of the burdens those commitments impose on business and on the community”.

Switching scenes now, racing authorities are public bodies and should desirably be bound by the same principle. It’s just good management.

Yet often it appears that what we get are schemes concocted in these bureaucracies by people who think “it is a good idea”. Whether they create burdens elsewhere seldom gets a run.

Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in the way we build, or re-build, our greyhound tracks.

For example, last year Maitland’s main turn got a haircut by cutting back some portion of the rail at the start of the turn. The exact details have never been published but we were assured by GRNSW that the move copied similar successful changes elsewhere. In the end, the change gave extra help to inside dogs at the expense of middle boxes.

In fact, “elsewhere” includes Wentworth Park which now possesses some of the most disruptive first turns in the game (they were never good but the 2001 cutaway changes made them worse); Bulli, which sees constant bumping and relegation on the first half of the turn; and Cannington and Launceston where the change created severe additional biases in favour of the inside box. That does not sound like success.

In other words, NSW failed to make a “systematic assessment of the burden” the changes brought about.

Now the industry is faced with a comparable burden from what seems like a modest fix at the Sandown boxes. GRV changed the triggering mechanism so as to generate what it called “more accurate” race times, involving speeding things up by “around two or three lengths”.

This would be challenging enough on its own but it comes on top of an even bigger time change 16 months ago when the surface was replaced. Together they amount to a seven or eight lengths difference. You now have to work out if your dog was running during Sandown(1), Sandown(2) or Sandown(3) before concluding whether it was a decent effort or not.

Clearly, the average punter will hardly be in a position to do that, so he is dudded to start with. But those many hundreds (thousands?) of folk around Australia who try to work out form scientifically are faced with records full of apples and oranges. How can they handle change upon change upon change?

Breeders who boast of great race times for their sires will have to put a question mark against their advertising claims. Record books will be full of asterisks and misleading information.

But the sad thing is that GRV did not need to make that last change. A better surface is one thing but an arbitrary and therefore unnecessary change to the mechanics is neither here nor there, especially when the authority failed to consider the “burden” of what it was doing.

Some might argue one way or another about the detail of these events. But the underlying message is that racing authorities are prone to adopt a “we know best” attitude to matters which seriously affect their customers, but about which those authorities have little or no expertise anyway.

Designing tracks and anticipating the effect of various features is amateur territory in the greyhound code – for one simple reason. No-one has ever done the necessary research to find out which thing does what. In practice, someone’s best guess dominates.

In Victoria they try harder than others but effort does not equal excellence. We, the public, can judge only by results and they are a very mixed bag.

Why, for example, is Meadows strongly biased to the inside boxes, thereby creating an unfair track?

Why was Sale re-built with a nasty bend start retained for the 520m trip?

Warragul has problems as the field moves into the turn.

Geelong is still a mystery waiting to be uncovered.

Wangaratta (now deceased) was built with a turn into the home straight that some dogs handled well while others ran off.

The evidence here and in other states is that serious analysis of outcomes does not take place.

The “burden on the community” is not assessed. On top of which the public is not able to vote for a new system every three years or so. Rarely do we even get asked.

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