Alan Jones

The focus of the Sydney Opera House furore has, understandably, been on the power wielded by far-right radio broadcaster Alan Jones — especially given the timing, only a few weeks after his role in encouraging Liberal MPs to turn on then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Jones, who badgered and threatened Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron on Friday seems to have some sort of deep-seated problem with women in positions of authority. Recall, for example, his extraordinary abuse of Julia Gillard when she was prime minister. Jones’ own direct financial interests in the horse abuse industry are speculated to have lent greater urgency to his rant.

But this is another example of how we can be preoccupied with personalities rather than the real story of systems of power that operate out of sight. The horse abuse industry in Australia has deep links with organised crime and corruption (some links: here, here, here, here, here) but despite that, commands significant political, business and media power.

The board of Racing NSW has a former Labor and former Coalition racing minister on it, as well as senior business figures — Tony Shepherd, Russell Balding (inter alia, former ABC MD) and Tony Hodgson. Broadcast rights to weekly races generate around $20 million a year for the sport, quite separate from major races like the Melbourne Cup, which Ten recently purchased for $100 million. Fairfax, which owns 2GB, also provides extensive horse racing coverage.

The NSW government, like other governments, enjoys gambling revenue from horse abuse — over $90 million in 2015-16 — but also regularly injects tens of millions in funding, both for small grants and major projects. In 2011, for example, the NSW government handed $24 million to the industry for the long-term upgrade of Rosehill Racecourse, while also spending another $5 million propping up uneconomic regional racecourses. Three years ago the industry was gifted hundreds of millions via a tax cut that significantly reduced NSW government gambling revenue.

Quite apart from forming part of the sports portfolio, the industry is also looked after economically by a division of the NSW Primary Industries Department. In 2014, the Department commissioned an extraordinary 100-page report that detailed the $2.6 billion economic benefits of the horse racing industry, conjuring the figure of over 27,000 workers employed in the industry and celebrating the economic benefits from “building inclusive and welcoming communities featuring powerful collaborative partnerships and relationships… policies that support priority community health objectives and providing engagement and a sense of worth for volunteers…”

The horse abuse industry is thus enmeshed in the business, political, media, fiscal and bureaucratic fabric of NSW in a way few industries can match, with former politicians, senior business figures, serving bureaucrats and media figures ready to support it. This explains the sight of NSW Labor nonentity Luke Foley joining Gladys Berijiklian in grovelling to Jones, while Anthony Albanese, while condemning Jones’ bullying, endorsed the exploitation of the Opera House.

Jones is merely the most public form of the power of the industry, which primarily exercises its influence through hundreds of meetings with politicians and bureaucrats, pressure from the media, the networking of its supporters, the discussions of bureaucrats and the positions it can offer politicians after they leave public life. It isn’t a powerful industry in the way, for example, banking and financial services is in Australia, but the methods it employs are the same, albeit on a smaller scale. 

Jones’ own power comes not from his extraordinary audience reach, or his high-quality journalism — as the list of major defamation suits he’s lost attests — but the perception he channels the Liberal Party’s elderly base, and his close connections with politicians who represent that base, such as Tony Abbott, who wield disproportionate power given the relatively limited size of that base. Jones is also amplified by the rest of the media, meaning his statements reach far beyond his immediate listenership, giving him an agenda-setting capacity that others with larger audiences lack.

The broadcaster’s meltdown is embarrassing in the sense that it draws attention to the power of the industry he was lobbying for, rather than allowing it to continue out of sight where it can be most effective. For a brief moment, it has shone a light on the way elected officials respond to real power and an industry deeply embedded in the decision-making process in NSW.