Victorian greyhound inquiries offer debatable solutions

OFFICIAL reports on from two states are showing some similarities. Both Queensland and Victorian investigators have called for a change in the makeup of the controlling boards and the creation of separate organisations to handle matters, including ' functions.

Two separate Victorian inquiries – by the Commissioner (RIC), Sal Perna, and Dr Charles Milne, the state's Chief Veterinary Officer – have done a very thorough job within their areas of expertise and to the they could ferret out information.

Queensland is waiting for further reports from consultant KPMG while NSW has only just started public hearings. However, the NSW inquiry has a much wider brief to follow than the other states.

Although the RIC suggests two board problems – (1) “there is currently no requirement that the GRV Board include a member with welfare experience”; and (2) “there is a lack of GRV Board members with greyhound knowledge and/or industry experience”, these observations are based solely on events arising directly from the live baiting issue itself. Dr Milne follows much the same route.

In that context, I believe both reports are flawed for three reasons.

First, the reviewers have no special competence in how best to structure industry governance and management systems. They both occupy what could be called limited technical roles, one to do with racing practices and one with animals in general. Their views are fine but they should not be dominant. There is nothing wrong with them wanting to see measures which better satisfy their particular needs, as they emerged from their inquiries, but that is only part of the picture.

Second, racing boards and senior managers have many other responsibilities other than those covered by these investigations. Therefore they must have expertise to bring to bear in other specialities, and a balance is required. Further, the need for “welfare” experience is an indistinct requirement; perhaps “veterinary” would offer more rounded advice, particularly as it automatically introduces a person to the ranks.

Third, to suggest changes to the composition of the board skips over the question of whether the board's current brief is sensible and appropriate. Is it a good idea to have a committee of management in the first place? That system is peculiar only to racing and is never used in any other commercial enterprise. Even other sporting administrations, many dealing with big dollars, have moved away from such obsolescent and inefficient concepts.

Bear in mind that the inquiries found no basic fault in what the boards and managers did – only that they did not go far enough. But why not? For example, the welfare concern was always there but the execution of that responsibility was not sufficient.

Indeed, the string of recommendations made by the inquiries concentrate on more inspections, more men on the job, and with greater powers – all purely managerial issues. Yet the inquiries barely touched on the reasons for those gaps in the past. It nominated the shortcomings but did not really delve into why they came about.

You could go further. Both Mr Perna and Dr Milne head up bureaucracies themselves – quangos, if you like – which are charged with overseeing what other people do, much as any government department does. When a crisis occurs the standard reaction is to call for an inquiry, an investigation, an interdepartmental committee and then, as often as not, the solution is to add another office, another regulation, or a new unit or instrumentality to handle the perceived problem.

In other words, their solution is to add another level of to the existing administration, never mind why the existing system was not working well.

The KISS Principle Ignored

That leads us to the other contentious issue; should the integrity functions be moved away from the racing authority (GRV), as recommended, and into a newly created unit of its own?

There are arguments either way. The RIC favours a new and separate unit on the ground that justice will then be seen to be done. While he found no irregularities in the current setup he believes any perceived bias or conflict would be avoided if the commercial and integrity arms were moved apart.

Once again, this is an opinion.. It fits into the “it would be a good idea” category. At face value the separation has some attraction in that it enables stewards and others to perform fearlessly and aggressively without any possibility of interference or influence from the traditional authority.

On the other hand, it removes a key function from the day-to-day operation of the industry and away from the aims and policies of its board and management. What would happen if the new unit disagrees with the old one? Licensing of both people and establishments would be confused. How would the respective organisations approach veteran's races, or excessively high frequency racing? No doubt it will be maintained that communications can be organised readily but it is not quite the same thing, is it?

Overlaying either option is the question of how competent the stewards are – under whatever boss. Already, over a long period, this column has instanced here numerous shortcomings and inconsistencies in form assessment and even in failing-to-chase penalties. Why is this so? Added to which is the age-old problem that stewards are regarded as the “enemy” by trainers, which itself is part of the current communication barrier identified by the RIC and well known in practice. Could that not be improved by better management and education?

If you look broadly at Australian industry it is a very common practice for that oversight function to be dealt with in-house. Car manufacturers, for example, place great importance on quality control units which essentially do the same sort of job. So do airlines where both pilot and engineer groups have independent checking and oversight positions existing internally, always with access to top management.

In those two cases a demonstrated high level of skill is a mandatory requirement for appointees to the positions. That is not necessarily true of racing organisations where fresh stewards come from relatively unskilled areas and learn on the job. Cadetships are common in all codes. Knowledge and cost issues have already been factors in the failure of the combined Harness/Greyhound authority established and then dumped in NSW..

Here is another example. Were you to a to establish better, low-interference greyhound racetracks (badly needed) it would have to include skills in engineering, racing policies and patterns, veterinary and issues and economic analysis. Yet, already, the RIC recommendations would split those responsibilities up into two different organisations, making the task harder to handle.

I imagine that Racing Victoria (notwithstanding reports about chatting with interstate colleagues) would also be alarmed at the suggestion that it be included in the new unit as it has put in huge effort and investment into building highly sophisticated stewardship systems to oversee statewide events. And while Queensland remains open to question, there is no evidence that thoroughbred stewards in NSW and Victoria are falling down on the job. On those grounds alone, given the politics, it is likely the proposal will die on the vine.

So while the RIC has done a fine job in many ways, its venture into re-organising the industry could well be pigeon-holed. So it should be. That's a challenge best left to others.

Clearly, the industry needs to smarten up its act, and has already taken some steps in that direction. But, long term, governments must grasp the nettle, get rid of management by committee and demand more professional attention to the industry's future. More accountability would be a good start. Enough of the waffle, let's see some real action.

More needs to be said on this – that will follow shortly.

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