It was a bit sad, really. The demonstration from an anti-racing group outside Sydney’s Mitchell Library last Thursday included a loud speaker, lots of banners and similar gadgetry, several retired greyhounds and numerous signs calling for an end to greyhound racing.
About 30 people were listening to the speeches, virtually all of them carrying the same paraphernalia and wearing the same T-shirts (later discarded to enable some of them to enter the hearing room). The public, as such, were nowhere to be seen, so the only other viewers were a few media types and an occasional greyhound trainer walking by on his way into the parliamentary hearing. Basically, they were preaching to the converted.
One particular sign protested that taxpayers’ money should not be used to support greyhound racing. Where do these guys get their facts from? In truth, in 2012/13 TAB betting alone on NSW greyhounds realised over $21 million for the NSW government. That one unscrupulous sign tells a story.
As in any field of human or animal activity, abuses will occur and errors will be made. The fact that they are minimal and attracting constant attention from authorities is lost in the confusion of these emotionally-based protests. Let’s hope the parliamentary committee adds it all up correctly, and with balance.
The rest of this report has been delayed because it was near impossible to absorb what was happening during the hearings. The acoustics in the room were appalling and the microphone techniques of most speakers were sub-standard. Consequently we have had to wait for the publication of the transcripts.
AMAZING BUT TRUE
Even sadder, and more extraordinary, was the evidence provided the day before in Newcastle by Ross Magin, GRA chairman from 1995 to 2003, about the goings on during negotiations on what ended up as a 99 year agreement on commission splits – The Racing Distribution Agreement or RDA.
The first point of interest concerns the professional advice GRA obtained.
According to Mr Magin, “The point is that the thoroughbreds originally appointed Clayton Utz because we had to consider that and the GRA and, I assume the trotting, considered that, rather than get another lot of lawyers in, we would also engage them to act on our behalf.”
The Hon. Trevor Khan (for the inquiry): “You got no independent legal advice with regard to the implications of the inter-code agreement on greyhound racing. Is that a fair summary of the position?”
Mr Magin: “The position is that, as far as I recall and know, Clayton Utz were acting on behalf of the three codes and I would have thought that legal obligations would be upon them to love the three of them and not just one.”
Considering that the code’s financial future was at stake, the fact that GRA had no independent legal advice is almost unbelievable. But that’s not all.
The negotiations took place just before the government sold the TAB to the most attractive bidder (ie the one that provided the biggest single lump of cash). This led to Mr Magin explaining the GRA’s relaxed attitude in this way: “We always knew that the Government was selling the business to the TAB and that the question of the distribution would be reviewed in 15 years time. In my mind I thought that was some sort of comfort into what might happen in the future.”
In fact, that 15 year review had nothing to do with the distribution arrangement. It was simply a condition of the sale and therefore involved only the government and the license it handed to the successful buyer – ie TAB Ltd (now Tabcorp).
However, a third point is even more shattering. Here is the process Mr Magin went through prior to signing the agreement: “The reason I signed it was that it was not my decision. It was put to them (the GBOTA and NCA representatives) that they were the industry, they were the people that shared the money, and we were an authority that was charged only with responsible greyhound racing. We were the policemen. We had nothing to do with the commercial side.”
Nothing? As it happens, I had some dealings with the GRA board just prior to this time – all concerning commercial matters. So did deFax, then a private company, which won several extensions of its contract with GRA to produce racebooks, after what were said to be competitive tenders. Anyway, the GRA’s very charter called for it to ensure “the development and progress” of the industry. How this could be interpreted as handing over power to two raceclubs beggars belief.
Even so, those two clubs obviously exercised powerful influences, both in their own right and as ex officio members of the GRA board from that time until very recently. Of course, that then leads to the question of how they could act simultaneously in the interests of both their club and the state authority. Some conflict would be normal, surely?
Let’s note that, amongst other things, the GRA was responsible for receiving money from the TAB and then parcelling it out to individual clubs for prize money, for club administration costs, and for assessing need and allocating funds for major maintenance items. As the largest clubs, naturally GBOTA and NCA got the largest shares. But how would that process be seen to be fair and equitable, or even desirable, in the interests of the state at large? It’s an impossible question, of course, but one which has largely disappeared now that clubs no longer have direct representation on the current GRNSW board.
We can also note that at a later time, the NCA nominee on the board, Mike Ahrens, abruptly resigned, advising the Greyhound Recorder that he could no longer accept the way it did business. Subsequently, two new appointments to the board, Paul Wheeler and Paul England, also resigned not long after they took on the job. Their reasons were never published.
The same organisation was strongly criticised by ICAC for its poor supervision following the investigation into abuses committed by the chief steward Rodney Potter, who was later jailed.
Historically, it all points to a bumbling approach to running an industry. But is it any better now? Many submissions to the parliamentary inquiry suggest not. It is also worth thinking about a year-old proposal by GRNSW to remove Border Park at Tweed Heads from the state and consign it to Queensland jurisdiction for future racing. An item in the 2012/13 annual report also emphasised the plan. The mind boggles at how a relatively lowly body like GRNSW could overcome a swathe of legal barriers and contractual obligations (to Tabcorp, amongst others) to do that. The change might also be a surprise to the NSW treasurer who would be faced with a loss of tax income from Border Park’s busy operation (not from its greyhound racing but from the packed houses in its betting auditorium every Saturday and public holiday). And neither TattsBet nor Racing Queensland is legally entitled to operate outside the state. Bringing this about – were it ever to be seriously considered – would require a busload of expensive lawyers just to think about it. Oh dear! Is this a repeat of the RDA exercise?
Greyhound racing generally, not just in NSW, tends to use outmoded organisational structures which militate against timely and efficient management. They particularly lack any efficiency oversight. Auditors check the sums but not the effectiveness of investments made by the board. The same applies to other racing codes, which must be a major reason that racing has been losing its punch and its market share over the last two decades. That greyhounds are doing a little better than others is no more than a reflection of stuffing more and more races into the overcrowded TAB calendar at the same time as the gallops and trots are losing their way, rather like putting more machines into an already busy poker machine palace.
So will the parliamentary inquiry see it in that light? Time will tell, but they are asking a lot of good questions.
A side note: during his former association with the Newcastle Jockey Club, Ross Magin was always a strong supporter of greyhound racing at Beaumont Park, then owned by the NJC. However, in the end, the NJC refused to take the necessary action to change its pattern of operation and the track closed down and the land was sold off. The wounds were deep and the Hunter region was never the same again.