12 July 2016
by Brendan O'Reilly

NSW's illl-considered ban on greyhound racing: the thin end of the wedge

Australians remember the response of former Labor Agriculture Minister, Joe Ludwig, who (in reaction to allegations of cruelty overseas) hastily shut down our northern cattle export industry, costing the industry hundreds of millions of dollars. NSW Premier Mike Baird is engaging in the same knee-jerk reaction by shutting-down greyhound racing in NSW, and the effects will also be costly.

Both actions were initially driven by exposés made by the Four Corners ABC programme in collusion with animal rights lobbyists. In both cases the TV presentation (funded by our taxes) was more interested in sensationalism than in balance, and, by focussing on a minority of rogue operators, condemned a whole industry.

Greyhounds have traditionally been the "poor man's thoroughbred", and are associated with ordinary working people (not the wealthy), especially in regional Australia. Most industry players are attached to their dogs and are interested in their welfare. The greyhound racing industry has had a colourful history but in recent decades many aspects of the industry have been smartened-up (especially to remove malpractices associated with corrupt gambling, and to do away with the use of hares). While the industry has raised its game, nobody denies that there is room for further improvement in its animal welfare practices.

The Special Commission of Inquiry into the Greyhound Racing Industry in New South Wales was set up in May 2015 largely as a reaction to a Four Corners programme aired in February 2015. Its report was released on 16 June 2016. It is important to note that the report itself did not recommend shutting down the NSW greyhound racing industry. This was a NSW Government decision.

The actual recommendation of the inquiry (Recommendation 1) was that "the Parliament of New South Wales should consider whether the industry has lost its social licence and should no longer be permitted to operate in NSW. If the industry is permitted to continue, the Commission makes the following recommendations...". The expectation of the head of Greyhound Racing NSW, which co-operated with the inquiry, was that that "there was only a remote possibility of greyhound racing not continuing but it was important that this would be determined by an assessment of social and economic benefits of the industry versus the possible harm associated with any findings from the review". Essentially the industry was blind-sided by the decision to shut it down.

The complaints about the industry essentially are that high numbers of unwanted greyhounds are euthanised each year, that the injury rate to greyhounds is high and seemingly under-reported, and that live-baiting ("blooding" of greyhounds) is common. Many of these criticisms involve inherent double standards and special pleading.

Mr Baird quotes the Special Commission of Inquiry’s finding that between 48,000 and 68,000 surplus or underperforming greyhounds (about 5500 per annum) were killed over the past 12 years. The Sydney Morning Herald, which supports Baird's decision to close down the greyhound racing industry, however also (separately) reported that over 250,000 healthy cats and dogs are destroyed in Australia every year because there are not enough homes for them. Despite these far higher numbers, there is no call to close down the companion animal industry.

Another double standard applies to complaints about injury rates. For humans, according to Sports Medicine Australia, one million sports injuries occur each year in Australia, with the annual cost amounting to an estimated $1.65 billion. Despite this there are no calls to ban contact sports like football. In the wild, hounds of all breeds seek and chase prey so that on the track greyhounds are only acting out their natural instincts.

Live baiting is one matter that is less easy to defend. Its persistence seems due to the fact that it appears effective in providing hounds with an extra incentive to chase. When undertaken clandestinely, it is, however, difficult for regulators to detect and prevent.

There are reportedlymore than 6,800 registered greyhounds in NSW and thousands more that are unregistered. Despite industry programmes encouraging the public to adopt a greyhound, it seems likely that, if the industry is shut down, most of these will need to be put down because the industry will have no income to support these animals, and there is very limited public demand for greyhounds as pets.

There will also be economic loss to the State. For the financial year 2010, Access Economics foundthat the total economic contribution of the greyhound racing industry in NSW was estimated at $144.2 million, of which $92.3 million was a direct contribution and $51.9 million was indirect being “flow-on economic benefits in the period with a substantial amount being generated through breeding ($24.4 million) and training ($12 million) activities.” The Access Economics Report estimated the total employment in the industry was 1,561 full-time equivalent positions of which 1,086 were direct and 475 indirect. Access Economics also found that 13,000 participants were involved in the industry. It can be expected that the 2016 figures for the industry would show a still higher economic contribution.

A broader issue to be borne in mind in the ban on greyhound racing is that some of the key animal welfare organisations involved are not altogether candid about their motives.

While many of the more conservative elements within the RSPCA, for example, may simply wish to improve standards of animal welfare, Animals Australia, and (especially) the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have a more radical agenda. It is clear from PETA's website (and other material) that PETA wishes to close all livestock industries, ban the use of all animal products, promote vegetarianism, close all zoos and circuses, and ban all activities involving humans using animals (from horse riding through to using dogs as working animals on farms or as guide dogs). If such policies had been followed in the past, millennia of human progress clearly could not have happened.

It is clear that in addition to being hostile to greyhound racing, PETA would specifically also like to shut down horse racing, and would like to also ban the keeping of companion animals. Animals Australiaare less forthcoming but clearly are openly opposed to livestock industries, promote vegetarianism, and seem to be fellow-travellers with PETA. If actions to shut down greyhound racing are successful, horse racing will be the next target. Steeplechasing/jumps racing will come first. There are already calls to end this form of racing. Eventually, even the Melbourne Cup, the Golden Slipper, and all mainstream flat racing will be in jeopardy.

In all this, my conclusion is that Mike Baird must have completely lost his marbles!