What with dams, floods and elections, Queensland is now dominating the news. Racing Queensland chief Bob Bentley is taking advantage of the timing to press his case – and his board’s – for continuing in the job, no doubt because the LNP opposition has threatened to dump both should it gain power on the 24th of March. His seven-page media release on March 15 sharply criticises plans to split up the existing RQL organisation, using the words in our headline.
Bentley is currently also chair of the gallops’ Australian Racing Board.
Fortunately, everybody is in favour of building the new greyhound complex at Logan, to the southwest of Brisbane – and finance has been assured. That’s a plus but no-one has quite worked out what to do with Albion Park, now owned jointly by harness and greyhound codes, partly because the trots refuse to disappear as requested.
The Queensland harness operation, were it a normal company, would probably have gone under administration some time ago. It is running at a heavy loss, even though it gets a disproportionately high share of TAB commissions, and is showing no sign of improvement. Still, harness racing is losing out across the country these days, hampered as it is by malpractices as well as the general fall in patronage affecting all codes.
Queensland dogs are not doing a lot better, recording an overall loss of $1.1 million in 2009/2010 (to help explain why, see SHORT CUTS, March 15). The 2011 annual report does not show comparative information but total TAB commissions remained virtually at 2010 levels.
Bentley points out that the current distribution agreement splits up commission amongst Greyhounds 9.5%, Harness 14.5% and Thoroughbreds 76%. Using turnover as a guide, RQL claims the division should be 11%, 11% and 78%, which would create huge problems for the harness code, were it ever implemented. Whatever happens, they appear to be living on borrowed time.
On the whole, the Bentley newsletter addresses only administrative and board composition matters with any seriousness. It’s about yesterday and today rather than tomorrow. The question of where the money will come from in the future is largely ignored. No plans are in place to attract more customers, instead the attention is on cutting costs wherever possible. Probably more importantly, he makes no suggestions about conducting research to find out why punter numbers are declining and what might convince them to return to the fold or spend more.
But Bentley’s major claim is that representative boards for each code would be, and have been, “flawed by self interest”. This is true enough in itself yet while the present RQL board is basically independent, one of the director’s qualifications is that the person may (not must) have knowledge of one or more of the three codes, whatever that means. In any event, the danger always persists that the dominant code gets better treatment than the minor codes, such as greyhounds. Right or wrong, it runs the risk that justice may not be seen to be done.
Additionally, claims about increased efficiency – which Bentley emphasises – in the tricode model should also be compared with options where back office functions are merged but code management remains separate. Bentley does not do that, although examples exist elsewhere in Australia.
NSW greyhounds has just moved away from the representative model to an independent one, joining Victoria and SA, while WA and Tasmania have essentially tricode structures but remain heavily influenced by government instrumentalities. For example, the WA greyhound sector is innovative in its marketing efforts to bring crowds to the track yet it has just seen the High Court shut down its poorly advised Racing Minister when he tried to ban Betfair, thereby disregarding both reality and customer preferences. And, of course, Tasmanian racing is totally controlled by a government department, which might guarantee neatness but not necessarily progress.
The choice Queensland really should be looking at is whether the tricode RQL model is better than a fully independent board for each of the three codes. Bentley compares RQL only with closely involved boards, not with independent ones. Either way, history tells us that any board representing sector interests can be expected to achieve little in the long run. The outside world has long since galloped past such obsolete structures, primarily because they have been ignoring the wishes and trends of their customers, as evidenced by the industry’s fractious negotiations with NT bookmakers (Bentley has strongly opposed both them and Betfair, which suggests a lack of vision and industry nous).
One of racing’s biggest problems is that politicians can’t help but get involved. Inevitably, they keep supporting odd special interests, or preferring the status quo, knowing that everyone will be voting next time around. They get no brownie points for eliminating any activities, only for adding new ones.
As Bentley complains, the Queensland Racing Act forces him to send 5.32% of product fees to non-TAB country clubs, many of which hold only one meeting a year.
Still, while Bentley tends to downplay the country clubs, he omits to mention the benefits they provide to the industry. Like apprentices, horses and dogs, or trainers and vets, all have to learn somewhere and these activities serve to spread the word widely and attract broadly based support. After all, you can still have a bet on the TAB in Bourke or Mt Isa.
For these and other reasons, racing would be better off were governments to stay right way from racing management. They did a pretty ordinary job of running banks and airlines back in the 80s, forcing consumers to pay through the nose for services now available at much reduced prices and higher frequencies.
Clearly, governments are no good at flogging a product or service. But, so far, neither are racing authorities. That’s where the boost is needed. Whether the LNP has worked out how best to achieve that is yet to be proven.