ACROSS the country, greyhound racing authorities have been galvanised into action following the appalling reports of live-animal baiting by a few trainers.
Task forces are being set up with high-profile leaders, media statements made, money is being set aside and stewards armed to race around the country looking for law-breakers. This is wonderful news but it is all too late, chaps. The horse has bolted. The bird has flown.
The mechanical bits will be sorted out, offenders prosecuted, more media releases issued and jail sentences are possible. But the mud will stick, particularly among the general public.
As this column pointed out several times during the heavily biased ABC 7.30 Report episode some 18 months ago, where official responses were virtually ignored, the industry must start being proactive, not reactive. Once the deed is done, it’s a waste of time trying to recover the lost ground.
The reason is straightforward. A minority of people have a neutral attitude to greyhounds and greyhound racing. A majority don’t like either. Only a tiny few support the sport, and most of those hope only to make a quick buck. The end result is that when a problem emerges the code cannot win, only go backwards.
The absence of public support exists primarily because of a lack of knowledge of the canine athlete, its unique and ancient history, its careful breeding and, to a lesser extent, because of the failure of authorities to get across the message that they have made strenuous efforts to eliminate drugs and other abuses. In total, the industry is far too introverted and has failed to look outside the square to learn what people really think, and then to react to those findings.
The last information about public attitudes to greyhound racing came out more than 20 years ago in a survey conducted by Ernst & Young for the Queensland authority. It was not pleasant.
Anything that has been done since remains a secret, including last year’s research by GRV. It must remain “commercial in confidence”, says GRV, for reasons that are hard to understand. Who else would benefit from that knowledge? Our competitors? But who are they? Poker-machine owners? The other two racing codes, both of which are in decline and have comparable problems? Major sports? The argument is specious and, frankly, it is doubtful they would even care. Meantime, that knowledge is denied to business proprietors and participants concerned with the progress of greyhound racing. And to the public itself.
Now comes the hypocrisy
Queensland, where things have been going downhill for the past decade (betting turnover, meeting and dog numbers, race quality), has suddenly decided to allocate $1 million to a task force to seek out and destroy those responsible for live animal baiting. Yet it already knows several offenders, but will not name them.
Besides that, why is the current batch of stewards and other employees not capable of doing what they are paid to do – identifying and prosecuting offenders? And would a task force be able to come upon any new offenders when they are hardly likely to be continuing their illegal activities for the moment. The search will be even more confusing because dead baits are not illegal, only live ones are – a curious policy. The whole deal smacks of a PR exercise.
But there’s more. Magically, Queenslanders have found another $1 million to launch a program aimed at more re-housing of retired racers. That’s terrific, but why now? And where is this money coming from, especially at a time when a new government is barely into stride? The state is near broke and has yet to front up with the $10 million promised for the new Logan track project, supposedly to commence in mid-2014. Its new Racing Minister, Bill Byrne, will also be looking after the Prisons portfolio, which is an interesting combination.
Much the same might be said of NSW where authorities have already been pounding out lots of words about stewardship and welfare matters, themselves initiated only following evidence produced at the parliamentary inquiry. That was launched in late 2013 but is still subject to possible government action.
On the other side of the coin, authorities have been actively engaged with community groups (particularly in Victoria) in joint promotions – the Pink Dog, etc – but while these are helpful they tend to be passing wonders and to concern limited numbers of the public (added to which, Glenn McGrath’s mob failed to turn up at the final award presentation at Wenty – not a ringing endorsement).
A major reason for those good efforts producing relatively little is that the message is falling on deaf or unreceptive ears. The groundwork has not been done. Basic support is not there.
So, while we are bandying around all these million-dollar efforts we have forgotten what should precede them.
The first million should go into a co-ordinated national program to educate the public and establish a positive image of the greyhound. That would embrace advertising (now virtually non-existent), billboards, point-of-sale material which explains the greyhound’s history, its capabilities and how racing is conducted, concerted efforts to take the greyhound into the community physically (something Uncle Ben’s travelling road show once did), and, within limits, public visits to kennels and studs (one to Sam Cauchi’s Rocky Ridge stud was a brilliant success). And so on.
A second million would be far better invested in conducting studies of greyhound tracks and setting up good design principles to replace the guesswork that now dominates the scene. That would be aimed at reducing interference and disruptions, and therefore the chance of injuries, and at providing the customer with a more reliable product to bet on. Such an amount, incidentally, is small beer compared with the multimillion-dollar investments that go into new and re-built tracks every year. The arithmetic is obvious, as is the potential return on the outlay.
Both programs would give the industry positive stories to relate to the public. Importantly, once done, it then gives the media a hard platform on which to consider how it should treat the occasional abuses. The “I hate greyhounds” lobby would be sidelined.
The only constraint on creating such programs is the lack of vision and the cumbersome nature of authority boards and the bureaucracies that support them. Those that concentrate on processes rather than outcomes will be the losers. The Four Corners program offers both the proof and a fresh hurdle to jump over.
Note: On this subject, only NSW, Victoria and SA took the trouble to show media releases on their websites. Queensland apparently issued a release to selected people but failed to print it on its website (which includes menu categories such as Latest News, Announcements, Industry News and Racing News) – so much for communicating with the public. WA and Tasmania had no comments at all.