Fairy stories no answer to greyhound woes

A YEAR has gone by since nasty things happened in three states, or maybe four. So, what's the upshot of it all?

Governments have pulled millions of dollars out of the emergency funds, mostly to pay people who knew little about racing to look into breaches of racing and state laws – breaches which had already been well defined and for which penalties were being applied, regardless of the intervention from government task forces.

Animals Australia were the real heroes, having identified and publicised serious welfare abuses – albeit using possible illegal tactics. But never mind that, it had to come out at some stage and so a massive clean-up followed with sanctions to many boards, staff and trainers. Tougher rules were introduced. The industry would never have obtained those benefits by any other method. It's better for it.

What went wrong in the first place?

It's easy to say poor supervision but that would skip over an endemic problem that was identified for other reasons by the Working Dog in its report to – a sub-standard industry culture. People in charge of dogs thought they could get away with horrific practices because it “had always been done that way”.

Even then, it is not good enough just to blame the errant trainers without pinning down the real responsibility to the people in charge. Where there is a culture problem at the bottom you can bet it is also present at the top. Anyway, many heads have rolled and more action is to follow in both Queensland and NSW.

So far, though, there is little indication that state authorities have addressed the critical long term challenge. The industry devotes nearly all its attention to insiders but very little to the customers or the general public. Its PR efforts were all reactive, not proactive, with the result that the industry had little or no support politically when the crunch came. Administrations were far too busy processing pieces of paper and forgot to look out the window. It assumes genuine customers will turn up when in practice it has been losing them steadily for over two decades.

Fortunately, enough Australians don't mind a gamble and so income has been maintained – as verified by the Roy Morgan Research report covered recently here, as well as by casual observation.

Unhappily, the industry has been done a disservice by a long string of governments, investigators and anti-racing lobbies which pounced on a magic solution without really knowing what they were talking about. They all claimed that “wastage” was the big issue and over- the source of the problem. Cut back and all will be fine.

There are two main reasons why such a policy is flawed. First, if you reduced breeding there would be fewer starters to fill the existing boxes and so race numbers would have to be reduced, thereby cutting total activity in some places to uneconomic levels. Poorer dogs would still find it hard to gain a spot. Less would be available to service welfare needs. Second, breeding has been falling anyway. Over the last decade the number of litters whelped is down by 1.2%, even though 4.3% more races are being run. The number of dogs named plummeted by 14.6%. Irrespective of their quality, there are actually many fewer dogs to choose from. (See statistics).

In any event, whatever the level of dogs bred, there will always be a proportion that fit into the “wasted” category, just as there is in any other animal breed, including racehorses. The vital thing is not how many but how you deal with them.

A related issue is the geographical imbalance. While NSW has cut the number of races run substantially over the last decade (by 12.6%) Victoria has actually bumped up its race numbers by 25.6%. In fact Victoria now has more races, more starters and pays out more than any other state, despite having only 13 tracks compared to 34 in NSW. Ten years ago the position was reversed. Only in breeding does NSW lead the way but caution is needed there as overall breeding activity is a function not just of supply and demand but of where both the sire and the dam happen to be located – which is a very flexible situation.

We now enter an era when one state – Victoria – has already decided to persevere with its longstanding management structure, although with different people, while NSW and Queensland are still pondering what to do. However, in principle, Queensland has already announced it will continue with “more of the same” but with increased board numbers. NSW awaits the report from its Special Commission, due in March.

The signs, therefore, are that the three governments will end up doing no more than playing musical chairs. Yet it is those very management structures that got us into strife. All the high-priced investigators have failed to uncover the real cause of the problem. Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice in Wonderland?

‘Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English); ‘now I'm opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!' (for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off).

‘Oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I'm sure I shan't be able! I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must manage the best way you can; —but I must be kind to them,' thought Alice, ‘or perhaps they won't walk the way I want to go! Let me see: I'll give them a new pair of boots every Christmas.'

And she went on planning to herself how she would manage it. ‘They must go by the carrier,' she thought; ‘and how funny it'll seem, sending presents to one's own feet! And how odd the directions will look!

Oh dear, what nonsense I'm talking!'

– Lewis Carroll

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