The return of Winston Peters to the political frontline is good news for the racing industry.
This was the week of truth; the week that the racing industry turned a corner and took its first steps in a new direction.
By the time these words are published Winston Peters will once again be our Minister of Racing and this industry will start heading down a new, fast path towards some substantial changes in policy.
Just after 3pm on Tuesday this week the live radio updates on Newshub revealed the NZ First policy concessions had been agreed upon which served to confirm the NZ First racing policy had been adopted as part of the NZ First-Labour-Green Party coalition agreement.
It was confirmation that the NZ First racing policy had indeed played its part – albeit probably a very small part – in the collation negotiations that eventually led to the formation of this new coalition government.
It was also confirmation that Winston Peters had kept his word and his faith in the racing industry and had taken us into battle with his party to emerge victorious with a new government that actually now possesses a decent racing policy.
But most of all, it was confirmation that the racing industry could now emerge from nine years of aimlessly wandering a parched desert under National with barely a surviving drop of water, to now be sighting a reachable oasis where there’s a well and a palm tree.
The analogy won’t be agreeable to everyone but if we examine the facts then it’s not far removed from the truth. National gave us a succession of impotent Racing Ministers who collectively offered less than Scrooge McDuck gave in his lifetime to philanthropy.
After nine years in government National released its racing policy only one day prior to this year’s September general election, which was clearly a desperate, last-ditch attempt to win some badly needed votes – but was anyone buying into it? Not in racing, at least. Besides, the policy amounted to zero because it didn’t say anything.
What the above clearly conveyed was that National had no empathy or understanding of the workings or people in an industry that amounts to one per cent of the country’s gross national product – an industry that generates around $1.5 billion annually.
We had developed into a business that over the past six years had exhausted more than $100 million of industry cash reserves and in the same period the TAB turnover has increased only 20 per cent while operating expenses at NZRB have gone up 40 per cent.
Stake-money was stagnant, costs continued to rise, the annual foal crop continued to fall but the nation was told we were in a ‘rock-star’ economy. Meanwhile, the cost of running the NZRB according to the last annual report had soared to $205 million annually.
A comparable sized racing industry in Western Australia costs A$90 million to run, and those close to it believe that’s too high. These facts have been well documented here in previous issues so let’s get back to the point of this article.
Well before the election, NZ First already had a well-compiled racing policy that recognised an industry that was failing and had been failing for so long without any action. There’s no question the industry itself must also share the blame through its own lack of leadership and inability to adapt. But that’s another story.
Now there is a racing policy which has been ratified by the incoming coalition government, the racing industry is about to get some action. So it’s time to examine the salient points in this policy that are going to be the game-changers.
By action in terms of time-frame it was confirmed by NZ First this week that there will be an announcement prior to the next Karaka Yearling Sales that they say will re-invigorate the industry. The racing policy recognises the importance of the breeding industry and the need to reverse its decline and increase exports.
“The number one person you have to look-after in the racing industry is the owner – they are paying the bills.”
Another of its policy bullet points is to return a greater proportion of industry taxation to the racing codes. Winston Peters already has a substantial track record in this sphere as he introduced the taxation relief in 2008 which is still in place and contributing a massive annual return. When introduced it brought $33 million back to the codes but today with increased TAB turnover the annual return equates to more than $50 million – it doesn’t bear thinking where we would be today had Peters not implemented this ongoing return.
Thirdly, the policy says a new (below Premier Meeting) category will be introduced where every race will have a minimum stake of $15,000. When questioned pre-election about the prize-money increases promised in the policy, Peters replied thus:
“I would be starting with the minimum prize-money around the country at a much higher level than the current one, and I’m not disclosing how I’m going to do it but I know I can, and I know where the money is going to come from.
“The number one person you have to look-after in the racing industry is the owner – they are paying the bills and when you’ve got the lousy prize-money it’s just ridiculous. The owner has to have the return on investment, or where at least you have some chance of recuperating your money – currently you have no chance.”
In that chat with Peters when he was questioned about the long-term neglect of our industry at government level and a widening disconnect between racing governance and its stakeholders, he gave this explanation: “What people in parliament have failed to understand is that most people in racing are workers, not wealthy land-owners.
“If you don’t understand the connection between man and horse going back to the year dot, then you don’t understand that people are in racing are there for the love of the horse.
“At the racing awards dinner in the introduction speech to the ‘Strapper of the Year Award’ it was summed up by the highlighting of the 3.30am get-up times for a 4am start. It’s 95 cent love of horses – they wouldn’t work in it otherwise.
“Then, when the Minister spoke at that same dinner and he said the race fields legislation bill was now before the house, I thought about how long the racing industry had been waiting all this time and there was no realisation by the government of the crisis the industry was in – no understanding of the seriousness of the situation and the fact that it required action now.”
According to Peters there will be no more ‘sitting on your hands’ treatment by the government under his watch. The policy says ‘urgently review the operations and costs of the NZRB’ and on that very issue he had this to say: “The problems will be solved at a higher level with a government and a minister that changes the legislative structure from top to bottom, and then changing the financial structure.
“You can change the Racing Act only if the right politicians are there to do it – the whole legislative structure has to be changed, and with the greatest speed possible.
“The fact is that if you don’t have the policy and financials and the understanding of the business in a business that’s massively top heavy and inexplicably expensive – if you don’t start there, and that’s at a political level, then no-one can change it.”
As well as legislative change Peters also sees racing as an important activity for New Zealanders socially and his racing policy includes a bullet point that says ‘further improve the appeal of the racing industry to a wider audience by encouraging the promotion of family-friendly activities in conjunction with race meeting of all codes.’
Peters is keen to retain places like Cromwell, Kumara and Dargaville as once-a-year family day-out race meetings that are not ruined by the PC brigade: “We are going hard out in the regions,” he said.
“I’ll give you an example, Dargaville races was happening in April this year and the police are there trying their best to stop racegoers with the BYO. This is part of our culture of the countryside. Kumara is just the same – they are doing their best to ruin it. I don’t mind them parking down the road and stopping the DIC drivers, but why have them stopping people bringing liquor onto the racecourse and having a family day out?
“The police are not in charge of our culture – why would we have them stopping patrons from bringing liquor onto a racecourse and having a family day out like they have done traditionally all over Australasia.
“I’m in favour of increasing the police numbers but I’m not having that going on when I have the say. We have these attitudinal cops that want to shut these places down. It’s not just arresting the guy that does get intoxicated – no, they shut everyone down.”
Whatever happens, the racing and breeding industries have better times coming, for at least three years, under the guidance of Winston Peters. And it was reassuring to hear former Labour MP (and former Racing Minister) Annette King say on Radio NZ this week: “My experience with Winston Peters is that he is a man of his word and he can be relied upon to do what he says he’s going to do.”