Animal Law in the Spotlight: Dog racing to end in NSW

On 7 July 2016, Premier Mike Baird made the bold decision to bring an end to greyhound racing in NSW. Effective from 1 July 2017, this decision will mean that tens of thousands of greyhounds and animals used in live baiting will now be spared from routine and systemic abuse at the hands of an industry that has proved incapable of operating without cruelty.

The decision not only sets a precedent for other Australian jurisdictions, but also reflects the importance of undercover investigations in exposing animal cruelty, and the failure of industry self-regulation to protect animals from abuse. It also represents a major victory for the Australian animal protection movement. While Premier Baird’s decision is to be applauded, we are urging all supporters of the ban to help ensure it is passed into law.

The decision

The Report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into the NSW Greyhound Racing Industry found “overwhelming evidence of systemic animal cruelty, including mass greyhound killings and live baiting.” It concluded that “the NSW Greyhound Racing Industry has fundamental animal welfare issues, integrity and governance failing that cannot be remedied.” Acting on these findings, Premier Baird announced that legislation will be prepared and introduced to solidify the decision to shut down the industry.

As a result, the industry has been granted one year to transition to complete closure, with greyhound racing only permitted until 1 July 2017. The Government intends to consult with RSPCA NSW and stakeholders to produce a detailed plan for this transition, including a support package for industry participants and a welfare plan for existing greyhounds.

Systemic cruelty across the industry

While animal advocates have been lobbying against the greyhound racing industry for decades, the industry was catapulted into the nation’s spotlight in February 2015, after an ABC Four Corners’ investigation revealed that live baiting was widespread across the industry. The exposé featured horrific undercover footage captured by Animal Liberation QLD and Animals Australia, revealing rife corruption and abuse, and that industry bodies responsible for regulating the industry were willfully turning a blind eye.

This investigation was pivotal to the NSW Government’s decision, reaffirming the necessity of undercover investigations to detect and prosecute animal cruelty in Australia. Significantly, it would never have been possible if federal ag-gag legislation had been allowed to pass.

After the investigation was aired, high profile trainers and greyhound owners were prosecuted and banned from the industry. Animal protection groups engaged in large-scale national campaigns, triggering separate parliamentary inquiries in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.

In NSW, the Special Commission Report found that up to 20% of trainers in NSW engaged in live baiting. The Report also found that almost 500 greyhounds sustain major or fatal injuries during races each year, and that between 50 – 70% of all greyhounds bred for racing in the last 12 years were deemed ‘uncompetitive’ and consequently killed. In other words, up to 68,000 healthy animals have been treated as ‘wastage’ in NSW alone.

The primary recommendation of the Special Commissioner, the Honourable Michael McHugh AC QC, was for Parliament to consider whether the industry should no longer be permitted to operate in NSW, with the alternative being extensive regulatory reform. However, the Special Commissioner’s ultimate view was that, “despite the best intention and efforts of the new management at GRNSW, it appears unlikely that the issue of the large scale killing of healthy greyhounds by the industry can be addressed successfully in the future.”

McHugh expressed concern that the entrenched nature of live baiting as a traditional training method, and the fact that the industry was aware of the practice and allowed it continue, raised a serious risk that “once the harsh spotlight of this Commission is removed from the industry, the practice of live baiting will thrive once more.” In other words, the Special Commissioner had no faith that the industry was capable of regulating itself, or could be relied upon to continue without cruelty.

A precedent for other jurisdictions to follow

Premier Baird and the NSW Government is to be commended on this bold decision. Arguably the biggest commitment made by any Australian government on the basis of animal welfare alone, the decision shows leadership in the face of political and industry backlash, and a commitment to stamping out unconscionable, indefensible conduct.

As the first state in Australia to commit to banning the industry, NSW has set a strong precedent for other jurisdictions to follow. Indeed, following Premier Baird’s announcement, the ACT Government committed to banning the industry in the territory, describing the findings of the NSW Report as “chilling, confronting, [and] horrific”.

Greyhound Racing Victoria was quick to differentiate the circumstances in NSW from those in Victoria, while the Tasmanian Government indicated that it currently has no intention to shut down the industry and is awaiting the report from its own inquiry.

Next steps

Shockingly, Premier Baird’s announcement has been met with opposition by NSW ALP Leader Luke Foley, the Shooters, Fishers & Farmers Party and the Christian Democratic Party – all vowing to block the passage of enabling legislation in the Legislative Council. While the support of the Coalition, the Greens and the AJP could see the legislation pass with only a thin majority, we are still urging supporters to take action here.

In transitioning away from the industry, it is imperative that the remaining greyhounds are safely and expediently rehomed, and that the breeding and export of greyhounds interstate or overseas is strictly prohibited.

Further, our decision makers should reflect on the lessons learned from this horrific industry. That animals, sport and gambling are a toxic mix. That industry self-regulation cannot protect the welfare of animals exploited for profit. And that animal advocates who help expose cruelty perform an invaluable public service that should be commended.