The Baird Government’s decision to close down the NSW greyhound racing industry last week prompted vigorous public discussion on a range of issues, mostly around animal welfare and gambling. (1)
But there’s also a “heritage” dimension here; a mostly working class activity that’s been pursued for almost 90 years in NSW will for all practical purposes completely disappear.
This is very different from historically significant buildings being bowled over. What’s almost certain to go by the board in this case isn’t just the infrastructure; so are the various activities they were built to accommodate. It won’t be the sort of slow disappearance that no one really notices until it’s too late; it’ll be a clear-cut chop from ‘before’ to ‘after’.
Around 600 race meetings will no longer be held across NSW every year. Many of those venues may close or be redeveloped for non-sporting purposes. An estimated 13,000 active participants in the industry will no longer have a role, including owners, trainers, breeders, organisers and volunteers.
It’s unlikely terms unique to greyhound racing – like “handler”, “catcher” and “lure” – will be heard much any more in NSW. The owner-trainer who walks his muzzled greyhound through suburban streets every day in the hope of a big win one day isn’t as common today as a few decades ago, but he won’t be seen at all in NSW from now on.
The report of the Special Commissioner refers to the greyhound industry, but it’s much more than that term implies. It would be unfortunate if what’s been an important part of Australian cultural life is only remembered by the appalling findings of Justice Michael McHugh AC.
Greyhound racing is a big part of Australian twentieth century working class history. The first race with a mechanical lure was run on 18 May 1927 at Harold Park after the Gaming and Betting Act was amended to allow legal wagering.
While horse racing was generally a pastime for the wealthy, Greyhound racing attracted the working class man due to the low admission charges, ability to place small bets and the timings of races which were often at night and suited their leisure hours. It created much opposition from the conservative and religious elements of the population against public gambling.
Like any activity, greyhound racing means different things to different people. For those involved in some way, it could’ve been a job, a responsibility, a hobby, a great win, a pursuit, an income, a list of champions, a social life, a wager, an area of expertise, a regular committee meeting, time with dad, a favourite bar, a source of self-esteem, a bunch of friends and acquaintances, and more.
Neither the dark underside nor the bright upside should be forgotten. Of course the idea of “protecting” an existing industry on heritage grounds – treating it like a museum piece – makes little sense (although the history of industry protection suggests it’s not always seen that way). And anyway, Justice Michael McHugh’s report provides compelling evidence to support the Baird Government’s decision to close the industry.
Like corner video stores, it’s an industry that’s structurally unsuited to contemporary circumstances. Technology made the video store redundant, but changing values underlie the demise of greyhound racing.
The key problem is a large supply of pups must be whelped each year to keep the industry running. But the great bulk in each litter are euthanised prematurely, either because they’re unsuitable for racing or their competitive career is over. Moreover, the incentives for barbaric training practices like live-baiting are strong and hard to police.
These sorts of practices have always been part of the industry; they date from a time when animals were seen as commodities with few “rights”. But values have changed; like the keeping of sow stalls, they’re quite properly considered unacceptable today.
So the industry is going in NSW, but the fact it’s still operating offers an unusual opportunity to “design” the way its history – the heritage it leaves – is represented. Many of the venues and artefacts are still being used, albeit on borrowed time. For the moment, this is a living and breathing set of activities; it’s possible to capture real-time events and the views and recollections of participants while they’re still engaged in the activity.
That’s likely to be a much richer source of information (albeit restricted to the post-war years) than the customary focus on preserving buildings that once accommodated long-disappeared activities with significant social and cultural historical importance.
Indeed, it highlights just how little information about social history is conveyed by simply preserving a building with – as is usually the case – no tangible connection to the activities it once accommodated. That usually can’t be avoided but we can do better.
We need to put more effort into recreating the way heritage buildings were used during their lives. The value of preserving a set of buildings like these would be immensely greater if protection were accompanied by, for example, information-rich 3-D tours showing how they were used during their lives (e.g. see Can we have an Australian Museum of Architecture (AMOA) please? and Lost heritage: is this all we’ve got to show for it?).