For years the Australian racing industry has been suffering from the onslaught of PRDS – political relevance deprivation syndrome. The disease is now clearly at the terminal stage. There can be no other rational explanation for the pending appointment of the retiring National Party MP, Peter McGauran, as CEO of one of the racing industry’s peak bodies, Thoroughbred Breeders Australia (TBA).
In the 1960s and 1970s, and even a decade or so beyond, racing was able to fight well above its weight in the world of government and politics thanks to the large number of powerful political figures who were race horse breeders, owners, and punters.
On any Saturday you could bet that Sir Henry Bolte, Andrew Peacock and Bob Hawke would be at the races in Melbourne – all three were successful owners. When he retired as Premier after a record term, the only post Bolte took up was that of Member of the Victoria Turf Club Committee. In Sydney, Sir Robin William (Robert) Askin was a racecourse regular, and a very big punter, as was prominent Labor MP, Lionel Bowen.
But it was in Queensland where racing had real clout. Anyone who got between Deputy Premier and Racing Minister Sir Gordon Chalk and a bookmaker would be bowled over, or squashed if he got in between Chalk and one of his more colourful successors, Russ Hinze. Bob Gibbs, Labor’s first Racing Minister after the Fitzgerald inquiry, revolutionised the industry and was a successful punter himself.
In Canberra one of the doyens of the breeding industry, Charles Edward (Ceb) Barnes, was Minister for Territories when one of his finest horses, Tails, was winning some of Australia’s major races. Bill Armstrong, the Country Party MP for Riverina before Albert Jamie Grassby defeated him, was also the official VRC starters while an MP, and started the Melbourne Cup each November.
How times have changed. The only time you see political figures nowadays at the races is on carnival days – and even then they are usually ensconced in the corporate boxes and marquees. The racing industry would today struggle to last three rounds with a revolving turnstile, let alone influence the decisions of government ministers. Governments have largely deregulated control to statutory authorities such as Racing New South Wales and Racing Victoria, though Victoria’s Racing Minister, Rob Hulls, can still shake up the industry when he needs to.
Given that racing as an industry is probably the fourth or fifth largest in Australia, it needs to regain some political muscle. So what does one of the peak bodies do? It appoints as its CEO and chief proponent a departing National Party MP at a time when there are wall-to-wall Labor Governments around the nation! Good luck – because he will need it.