Greyhound racing sees states on different tracks
You can see them of an evening – slightly grizzled old blokes strolling through the park in solitary contemplation, just a couple of long-legged greyhounds for company. But for all the apparent tradition of the hard-bitten ocker with his pup, there has always been a dark side to dog racing. Some trainers and owners believe that blooding a dog – allowing it to catch and kill a live animal – makes it more competitive. There is also the gruesome arithmetic that more dogs are whelped than can be raced and those who can’t compete are euthanised.
The latest scandal was stirred up by a Four Corners program, “Making a Killing”, in February 2015, which used hidden-camera footage of trainers live baiting dogs with piglets, possums and rabbits. The program caught many of the sport’s most senior figures gleefully torturing animals. Trainers and owners lied about the practice to camera and, more significantly, Four Corners established that officials in Greyhound Racing NSW (GRNSW) colluded with trainers to protect them from prosecution and to hide the illegal live baiting rings.
The outrage in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland was immediate. The relevant state boards promptly resigned or were stood down and new regulations were introduced. NSW Premier Mike Baird established a special commission of inquiry by former High Court justice the Honourable Michael McHugh, AC QC.
The usual response to such an inquiry is the adoption of a few recommendations before the whole thing is filed and business returns to normal. In this instance, however, Baird adopted the strongest recommendation and announced that the industry could not continue and would close on July 1, 2017.
In banning the sport, NSW is falling in line with overseas trends. Australia is one of only eight countries that still allow greyhound racing, and the sport has been banned in 38 states of the United States.
Baird was, in part, motivated by the endemic corruption in the industry, from owners to regulators. It was so rotten that he deemed the sport in NSW incapable of reforming itself. Among other things, the inquiry found that GRNSW had an effective policy of intentionally misrepresenting dog numbers and thus hiding the extent of the slaughter.
The disposal of superfluous dogs was endemic. McHugh found that up to 68,000 greyhounds, or between 50 and 70 per cent of all dogs bred for racing, had been slaughtered over a dozen years for not running fast enough. Pro-racing officials agreed that 3000 puppies were killed each year in NSW alone. Then there were the old dogs that could not race anymore.
Animal welfare groups and dog lovers run programs to rehome unwanted greyhounds and, while they have some success, they can’t match the number of excess animals that the industry breeds, so the deaths continue.
Local breeders also export animals to Macau, where the notorious Canidrome club runs almost continuously, using older and slower dogs, which are literally raced until they die or are put to sleep. The export of dogs to Macau was outlawed in 2013; nonetheless, in June this year, 179 Australian trainers were charged with sending dogs there.
The headline issue in greyhound scandals is, however, live baiting, where small live animals are strapped to a machine similar to the one that holds the lure at dog tracks. The normally gentle dogs are excited by the noises of the trapped animal and eventually, when they catch it and attack the prey, they supposedly associate the professional lure with the taste of blood. Live baiting was outlawed in 1979 but has continued. Stewards and officials of GRNSW have participated in live baiting, as have at least 20 per cent of dog trainers and owners.
Anticipating a scandal prior to the airing of the Four Corners investigation, former GRNSW chief executive Brent Hogan suggested the establishment of commissions of inquiry, with appropriate legal figures, as a way of deflecting criticism or further investigation – much as the Queensland and Victorian governments had done.
The greyhound industry has been under considerable pressure, squeezed by other options for gambling and by horseracing. Nonetheless $3 billion a year is wagered on dogs. While the two-dog battlers are the romantic heart of the industry, there are larger-scale trainers and owners who are taking home millions each year in prizemoney and betting wins.
In Queensland, a complete inquiry followed the resignation of the board of Racing Queensland. It was suggested that the integrity functions and the commercial functions of the industry be separated.
A spokesman for Racing Minister Grace Grace said: “We think the greyhound industry is capable of reform.” To that end, the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission of Inquiry was established under Alan MacSporran, QC, and made various recommendations. The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and racing minister have both said the industry is “on notice” but have fallen short of threatening closure. Far from it. Grace’s response to Baird’s decision was to call a meeting with key members of the Queensland greyhound racing industry and reassure them that, thanks to government reforms, greyhound racing had “a bright future in Queensland”.
In Victoria, the racing minister, Martin Pakula, also instituted an inquiry following Four Corners’ revelations. It’s estimated that the industry employs 3000 people and is worth $300 million to state revenue. As a consequence, Pakula concluded that more oversight was appropriate. A spokeswoman for the minister said the Victorian government would not act on a report commissioned by another state. She further suggested that Victorian “wastage is significantly less than in NSW”.
The Greyhound Racing Victoria board resigned after the Four Corners report. Its new chief executive, Alan Clayton, was formerly Victoria’s executive director of police, emergency services and corrections. He presides over a new, remodelled GRV, with a larger budget and more staff, overseen by an integrity adviser, former homicide squad detective Charlie Bezzina.
Pakula is aiming for a 25 per cent reduction in the number of dogs whelped each year to reduce wastage. Clayton also wants to introduce slower races for ageing dogs. It’s not clear how enthusiastic the fans will be. Meanwhile, live baiting charges have been laid against 15 people in Victoria and hearings occurred this week. Four of those people will formally plead guilty next month.
The Australian Capital Territory chief minister, Andrew Barr, announced in a statement that the territory would follow NSW’s lead: “The government cannot continue to support an industry that is turning a blind eye to the sort of behaviour and cruelty uncovered by the special commission of inquiry. It is untenable for the ACT government to continue allowing, and financially supporting, the practice of greyhound racing.”
The sport has a minimal presence in the ACT. Western Australia and South Australia will continue as before, while Tasmania awaits a parliamentary inquiry.
Greyhound racing has some powerful friends. The gambling industry is certainly in favour of the sport continuing and so is the National Party. In NSW, some Nationals MPs, led by Katrina Hodgkinson, are threatening to cross the floor against Mike Baird. Labor leader Luke Foley has also mounted a spirited defence of the sport and threatens to make this an issue at the next election.
Hodgkinson believes that dog racing is an essential part of rural, working-class culture. Pro-racing writer Miranda Devine opines that, “It’s hard to fathom the arrogance of squeamish city dwellers killing off a quintessentially Australian pastime they don’t understand. The decision is driven by the sensibilities of vegan GetUp! activists, with nose piercings and psychological hang-ups, who loathe the culture that greyhounds represent – of male battlers in regional Australia hanging onto their dignity, whose main social interaction is a night at the doggies.”
As a result of the Four Corners investigation, some 23 trainers have been warned off racecourses in Queensland and some trainers are facing animal cruelty charges there and in NSW. There are two dozen investigations into animal cruelty running over two states.
The dark consequence of Baird’s decision is that 6000 active greyhounds will have to be rehomed or put down. Baird believes, however, he has no choice. Decades of investigation have changed the culture not one iota.
“Although there had been some progress made,” he said, “the inquiry found that the industry has had many years to reform and failed to do so. In fact, even after the Four Corners investigation, and with the full knowledge that we had ordered an inquiry, the report found trainers were still using live baiting and flouting the rules.”
So the battler with his pups at the park or on the beach will become, in NSW at least, like the shandy and the Holden. Another Australian tradition disappears into the twilight – this one driven by an industry that stubbornly, or arrogantly, chose death over adaptation.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Different tracks". Subscribe here.