The New South Wales government’s U-turn on its greyhound industry ban says as much about the weak calibre of some politicians holding high office as it does about their subjugation to the media, which has relentlessly pilloried Premier Mike Baird about the ban since it was first announced.
Facing declining popularity, Baird appears to have capitulated to the media to try to win public support, and avoid discontent within the Nationals party in New South Wales. This is unlikely to succeed: according to a recent RSPCA poll, 64% of the public support the ban.
The ban was announced in July to come into effect in 2017, following a review of the state industry led by Special Commissioner Michael McHugh.
So what does the backflip mean for greyhounds?
What will happen to the industry now?
In a media statement, Baird and deputy premier Troy Grant announced a suite of changes that would allow the industry to continue.
Life bans and increased jail terms for live baiting
A new regime to register greyhounds for their entire lives
A new independent regulator with “strong new powers” to ensure transparency and accountability
Fresh resources for enforcement and prosecution of wrongdoers and new resources for animal welfare.
Former NSW premier Morris Iemma will chair a Greyhound Industry Reform Panel that will determine the new rules, and will involve the RSPCA, the greyhound industry and government representatives.
The greyhound industry reportedly proposed a number of changes to overturn the ban including a cap on breeding, and reduced numbers of tracks and races.
Limiting the number of bitches breeding in NSW will do nothing to reduce the scale of the industry. Dogs could just be brought in from interstate, and it will be difficult to police this movement.
The sops to the animal advocacy bodies are that they will receive more money to deal with animal cruelty and there will be increased support for rehoming greyhounds in NSW. But as a recent study from my group shows, greyhounds have significant behaviour problems in the home, due no doubt in part to their traumatic upbringing.
Industry on the way out
In an industry already declining, these measures merely reflect the need to curtail its scale in the event of declining attendance and interest. Greyhound racing is now banned in 40 US states. Just 19 tracks remain in six states. Worldwide the industry is only maintained in a handful of countries.
There are a number of reasons why the public has turned away from racing. Like other animal (and human) competitions, these games have been tainted by use of drugs and other uncompetitive practices, such as live baiting in greyhound racing.
Top greyhound trainers earn earn up to A$5 million per year. There is declining public appetite for an industry that generates huge profits for a select few.
Then there are the ethical considerations. At least 50% of dogs are culled because they are too slow. The industry is clearly on the road to self-destruction in terms of its public appeal.
Greyhounds have abnormally large hearts, high blood pressure and a predisposition to gastric torsion and bloating. Like racing horses, the public does not gain any pleasure in seeing such animals win races when it knows that it is simply due to physiological abnormalities on the part of the winner.
Public interest in such sports is changing from “who is the fastest” to a celebration of giving everyone a fair go, to enjoy taking part, in line with the widening circle of compassion that has been increasingly sweeping through human society for at least 200 years.
Out of step
The review of the industry advised that:
Given … the highly entrenched nature of live baiting as a traditional training method, there is a very real risk that, once the harsh spotlight of this Commission is removed from the industry, the practice of live baiting will thrive once more. It is imperative that regulators take all available steps to try to ensure that this does not occur.
For live baiting, the review recommended lifetime bans for any trainer found to be involved in the practice.
Overall, the review recommended the government consider banning the industry, or, if it was to continue, make a number of changes to tighten regulation such as lifetime registration, improved reporting and oversight.
Mike Baird was bold enough to ignore his government’s earlier support for the industry, and was evidently influenced by the widespread evidence of cruelty in the industry.
The evidence of this very detailed investigation now lies in tatters.
This is out of touch with the attitude of the general public, the majority of whom want to see the welfare of animals managed better at a government level.
Australia should be at the forefront of world leadership in celebrating the opportunities through sport for those less advantaged, the aptly named underdogs in society, to be given a fair go.
Instead of racing greyhounds, why aren’t we supporting the public to bring their elderly, overweight, or otherwise less-than-perfect pooches to meet other dogs and have a trot around the track, to the delight of onlookers?
Authors: Clive Phillips, Professor of Animal Welfare, Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, The University of Queensland