Responses to live baiting allegations: Design and implementation of the comprehensive reform of Victorian greyhound racing

In early 2015, ABC program Four Corners aired ‘Making a Killing,’ an exposé on greyhound training practices across Australia, featuring footage of live animals being used as bait to train greyhounds in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. The program also alleged that there was potential corruption and a cover up of animal cruelty by the controlling body for greyhound racing in Victoria, that is, Greyhound Racing Victoria (GRV). What followed the Four Corners program was massive public outcry that contributed to significant political pressure for governments to take action. This was particularly true Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) as Australia’s largest markets.  

The reaction from Governments were swift. There were a number of inquiries launched in both Victorian and NSW, with former High Court of Australia judge Michael McHugh appointed to lead a review of the industry in NSW, whilst in Victoria the Racing Integrity Commissioner (RIC) and Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) were commissioned to investigate animal welfare in the industry. Following the NSW McHugh Inquiry, then NSW Premier Mike Baird announced that greyhound racing would be banned in NSW from 1 July 2017. However, the decision was subsequently overturned.

In mid-2015, the Victorian RIC and CVO reports into local greyhound racing were tabled in the Parliament of Victoria, resulting in a total of 68 recommendations to improve the welfare and administration of greyhound racing. The Victorian Government provided in-principle support for all 68 recommendations, establishing a taskforce to oversee recommendation implementation. The Victorian taskforce oversaw a unique and significant program of reform across a multiple departmental agencies and industry bodies.

Intended Victorian reform recommendations were focused on the animal welfare outcomes and robust practice. Operationally, key initiatives included statutory animal welfare requirements, banning lures that use animal materials, stronger penalties for animal cruelty, and increased inspection and investigation powers. The recommendations also led to the rapid and sizeable expansion (>50% growth) in the Victorian Greyhound Adoption Program (GAP) from an initial base of 7,000 greyhounds. You’ve probably seen a lot more people walking their pet greyhounds lately?  

Yet, finding securing the right balance between good policy and effective program delivery proved a challenge. The reforms raised questions of what is legislatively required to ensure statutory obligations (from both a racing and animal welfare perspective), and what is practical in the administration of a sport that contributes over $408 million to the Victorian economy and secured approximately 2,900 jobs for Victorians (and voting citizens). The passion and commitment of industry participants, who worked hard and under the Australian Rules of Racing remained real and felt by many.   

Recent participation in the Victorian taskforce 12 months into its program of work has been multi-faceted and complex. The operational impact of new policy implementation within the sector is challenging to assess. Outcomes are multiply experienced and understood. Consider the diversity of perspectives of the Victorian Government Department of Justice (i.e. interest in racing policy) and working with the Victorian Government Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (i.e. interest in animal welfare policy), and the task of ensuring policy coherency to ensure improved animal welfare outcomes while ensuring the robustness of the racing industry. The timing and staging of intended and even unintended consequences was reported from the early stages of sector consultation.  

The sector, like others, is diverse. However, the relative uniqueness of greyhound racing and potential for a lack of extensive industry experience in assessing, contributing and implementing reforms risked influencing approach. Yet as a Victorian Government statutory body, it must abide by policy and legislative requirements under Victorian State Law. The potential for greyhound racing to be seem as a less complex little brother to the thoroughbred industry is high. However, the live baiting scandal consequently challenge common perceptions of the simplicity of the sector and that lack of indicates that no need for reform.

Greyhound Racing Victoria demonstrated early on a strong commitment to significant reform and implementation of best practice. The controlling body’s ability to transfer new policy in to practice saw a number of animal welfare related recommendations rapidly implemented. This included a 400 per cent increase in Animal Welfare Inspectors, the establishment of a new Investigations Unit, a doubling of samples for prohibited substances and a crackdown on greyhound exports. Significant consultation across government, the industry body and participants facilitated approach and acceptance of change across the industry.

Three years on, the success of the reforms has seen the large majority of the recommendations implemented or underway. There is evidence that that the Victorian greyhound racing sector is healthy and thriving. Government, statutory bodies and industry participants can work collaboratively toward a common goal which balances diverse interests and outcomes for shared benefit.

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About the Author:

Ashley Baker is the General Manager of Werribee Racing Centre in Victoria. Prior to this, Ashley spent 18 month at the Victorian Department of Justice as a Senior Policy Officer in the Office of Racing. This was his second stint in the public domain after nine years working across Welfare Program Delivery and Family and Child Care Policy.  During his time in the Office of Racing a considerable component of his role was to work on the Greyhound Racing Reform Project. Prior to the Office of Racing Ashley spent seven years in the thoroughbred racing industry in a number of varied operational roles. He recently returned to the thoroughbred code in a Senior Racing Administration role.

Ashley Baker is contactable at Werribee Racing Centre via a.baker@werribee.countryracing.com.au