THIS is serious, deadly serious.
The September 28 opening speech – some might say rant – by Stephen Rushton SC, counsel assisting the Special Commission looking into greyhound racing in NSW, has offered the first public view of where the inquiry is going. (Following on from our comments earlier this week, we now have the benefit of full transcripts). Apparently, a great deal has been going on behind the scenes, including the taking of formal evidence, but none of it has seen the light of day.
However, the tenor of the Rushton speech has three key characteristics:
(1) The Commission's investigation is far deeper and more forensic than any conducted in other states – efforts which we have previously criticised as being superficial at best, political at worst.
(2) It uses evidence and data from the last several years to paint a fairly solid picture of events concerning the numbers of greyhounds (some dubious), the industry's culture and the sometimes misleading attitude of GRNSW.
(3) Rushton adds to this his own emotional content, often suggesting that the answer is to “shut the industry down”, almost regardless of the fact that his comments so far address only a portion of the operation of the industry.
This quote summarises his position to date; “If we continue to have a situation where the figures that I have just shown you cannot be managed, and in a way we view and the community would have an expectation that they would be managed, going forward, then the only responsible submission I could put to you is that this industry cannot continue.”
That is an extraordinary claim in the circumstances. After speaking about only a small part of the industry he now wants to wipe it out. Clearly, he is pushing a view rather than evaluating the options.
Of major interest is that Rushton claims that GRNSW and most participants were well aware of the practice of live baiting, and that it has been widespread, yet did little or nothing about it. It is hard to fault his major conclusion, although the proportions may be debatable. To some extent, that view is supported by the findings of the Working Dog Alliance report to GRNSW in that the code's biggest challenge is to overcome the reluctance of participants to modernise their habits, all the while ignoring community standards.
The ongoing process is now going to be dominated partly by that cultural problem but more critically by the practice of euthanasing unrequired dogs in large numbers. Here Rushton claims that this is unacceptable to the community and therefore must stop or be radically reduced.
He bases that view on the premise that an industry which uses dogs for entertainment or commercial purposes is ethically unsound. But is that fair and reasonable? Horses, other dog breeds and cats fit into the same category. Indeed, any pets would (and pet shops). The household foxie is there for the enjoyment of the family, weird and wonderful crossbred dogs are fashioned solely for sale to the public. Relatively few thoroughbreds are confined to the racetrack or end up at pony clubs – the majority head for the knacker's yard. And how many kittens are drowned after birth?
Rushton's main, or only, solution to wastage issues is to reduce breeding numbers. This is a furphy by any account. Even were it to come about, it would not change the proportions, only the absolute numbers, which would still leave us with the same philosophical issues to solve. By implication, a smaller level of activity would harm the efficiency and the economics of the industry, leaving fewer resources to devote to welfare subjects. Shutting down also implies that someone will magically come up with an answer to the problem of disposing of some 20,000 or more greyhounds overnight, as well as all the infrastructure, people and jobs supporting them, to say nothing about the resultant gaps in state government finances.
But, yes, in theory shutting down can happen. It's been done before in plenty of centres in Australia as well as overseas. Some of those decisions came about when non-believers were in the majority (as occurred in Massachusetts in USA) rather than from any logical evaluation of the risks and rewards. Across America the simple reason for most closures was that they failed to make money, either by themselves or together with associated casinos.
In the end, it is all a matter of perception. Some people like greyhounds, some don't.
The same applies to claims about racing injuries – featured by Rushton as well as in Animal Liberation protests – constituting a reason for the cessation of racing. To follow that line implies that every other sport known to mankind should also be eliminated. All of them are susceptible to injuries, even deaths, purely as a by-product of competition. And, of course, nature is not nearly so forgiving in the wild.
Rushton's speech was narrow in perspective and prone to hyperbole and dramatics, rather than to systematic evaluation of the good and bad points about greyhound racing. As such it lessens the value of the better points he made. Let's hope that more balanced views appear in future hearings and, indeed, in decisions.
Now, none of that is to excuse poor behaviour. Or, even more importantly, it does not excuse the bad management which Rushton has already identified. What it does do is to focus attention on the way the industry is structured, which then governs how both short and long term management can flourish.
Clearly, the current practice of management by committee is a rank failure. It isn't management at all but just administration. There's a big difference between taking positive action and just shuffling papers. Responsibility is muddy, vision is clouded, innovation is minimal, and outside views are ignored. The racing industry's current system comes from the dark ages and should be sent back there.
For the first time in memory, the code's very existence is under threat, and deservedly so. But the aim should be to make it better. Eliminating it makes no real sense.