Sal Perna

Before Sal Perna GAICD became Victoria’s Racing Integrity Commissioner, the state’s racing industry was in disarray. An independent review, conducted in 2008 by retired Judge Gordon Lewis, found criminal activity was “rampant”. Lewis made more than 60 recommendations to clean up the industry, including appointing a Racing Integrity Commissioner to oversee integrity assurance in the thoroughbred, harness and greyhound racing codes. In 2010, the then Minister for Racing, Rob Hulls, created the Office of the Racing Integrity Commissioner and appointed Perna, an ex-detective inspector with the Victorian Police, to lead it.

Perna is a straight talker. The most consistent issue in racing? The use of prohibited substances. The toughest attitude to change in the racing industry? The need for oversight. The best place to start with overhauling the integrity of any industry or organisation? A code of practice for industries and code of conduct for organisations.

He says he often wonders whether the word integrity is well understood. “I saw an ad on telly talking about the integrity of a wood fire. Then I sat down to watch MasterChef and they started talking about the integrity of a meal!”

For Perna, the meaning is crystal clear. “It’s about keeping crime and corruption out of this major industry. Racing is worth more than $2.8 billion to the Victorian economy each year. Full-time employees are around 30,000, but if you add all the part-time, casual and volunteers, it’s around 200,000 people. That’s how important it is for people to feel that it’s an even playing field — that there isn’t any corruption and there isn’t any crime.”

The soft skills are the hard ones

Twenty years of service with Victoria Police, including two stints with homicide, have made Perna a decisive leader. “People think policing is about process — conducting interviews, preparing a brief of evidence. But it’s much, much more than that. For me, the main take-out from 20 years in policing was getting life skills; being able to relate to people, deal with people, talk to people, stand up, take charge and show leadership.”

In the past eight years, Perna has made waves with inquiries into live baiting in greyhound racing, late scratchings in harness racing and race fixing. More recently, he conducted a controversial investigation into allegations concerning the then chairman of Racing Victoria, David Moodie, who resigned from the position in December 2016.

Education is a two-way street

As important as such reports and inquiries are, Perna spends at least 50 per cent of his time talking to stewards, jockeys and trainers. “I’m a very strong believer in industry familiarisation, stakeholder engagement — call it what you like.”

It’s so important that — in the 2016–17 annual report — Perna and his five staff recorded every operational visit to city and country race meetings (77), every presentation on racing integrity (40), every stakeholder meeting (3734) and every kilometre travelled (2806km). These activities help the team discover, in forensic detail, how the racing industry works. “I can’t talk about what a steward should do better — or an integrity official or an intelligence analyst or an investigator — unless I see what they do.”

Perna sits in the stewards’ tower and watches them read a race and record their notes. He follows them to the stewards’ room to review the race video for rule breaches. If they hold an inquiry and bring a jockey in, he watches how they interview the jockey to gain the evidence.

“I’ve been on the back of a sulky. I’ve patted thousands of greyhounds. I’ve sat in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt at the back of a trainer’s property and let a new litter of greyhounds run all over me.”

In these visits, Perna and his staff learn, but also educate the industry. In conversations, they show people how corruption can creep in. A jockey makes a friend. The friend gives the jockey’s kids a gift. The friend asks a favour. It’s often hard to see it coming.

Integrity and what matters most

Perna believes people like rules. “The reality is that people expect to live and work in an environment that has certain standards. We want to live in an orderly world.”

So where does integrity start? Step one: decide on the rules by creating a code of practice. Step two: make the rules clear to everyone through education and appoint a single person to oversee them. Step three: don’t tolerate anyone breaking the rules. Hold everyone, from the top down, to account.

Perna says directors and executives must speak to people on the frontline, where integrity is a daily challenge. Even more important is to remember what matters. “If you watch someone die in your arms, which has happened to me a few times, you realise life is so precious. It’s not important whether you’ve got a title, a good salary, a corner office or a nice car. What’s important is the love of your family and good friends.”