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Government support for Gambling hard to justify

May 16, 2020

As many New Zealanders and business owners burst their boilers and bubbles trying to return to some form of normality after Covid-19 we have the opportunity to decide at least some of the elements which will make up that new normal. There seems little doubt that we will have to become more self-reliant than we have been for the past century or more.

There have been strong indications that our borders will probably remain closed or tightly controlled to foreign visitors for as long as it takes for an effective vaccine to be developed. That has variously been estimated as several years to a decade or more. Given the cost, inconvenience and grief to the nation so far it would be unconscionable to take any undue risk of a re-invasion of the virus by opening our borders before then.

Those business operations which cannot adapt to that harsh reality will likely not survive even with short term financial assistance and the Government must face the tough decision about letting some die a natural death while providing a safety net for employees. That has been foreshadowed a number of times through the lockdown process with indications that ‘not all business would survive and not all jobs could be saved’.

Customers and clients will also have to make a clear distinction between those services and facilities it is nice to have and those they cannot do without. Fast food, fancy coffee and haircuts are well down the list of   things we need. Given the reduced income of many people, through job losses, business closures and the end of the wage subsidy, it will be some time before discretional spending gets back to pre-Covid-19 levels, if it ever does.

Given that the Covid-19 recovery effort will be funded by borrowings it makes little sense for Government to prop up those enterprises most people will not able to afford and can do without for the foreseeable future. It is difficult then to justify the $72.5million rescue package for the racing industry, in addition to $6.5million already granted towards a new track at Cambridge from, the Regional Development Fund when many other useful enterprises could go to the wall without assistance.

Horse tracing had its origins when horses were essential for agriculture, industry, transport and most military operations. Breeding bigger, stronger and faster horses grew into an important industry. From there grew horse races to test horse breeds and breeders against each other. The game of polo also grew out of the need for cavalry regiments to have fast, agile mounts and highly skilled riders. Likewise dog racing grew out of breeding fast agile hunting dogs for small game. We no longer need horses for those purposes or dogs for hunting hares and rabbits but racing has continued, along with attendant gambling, social gatherings and even fashion parades, most of which could be enjoyed in the absence of the horses and dogs.

While the industry, which is part of our folklore, has provided jobs and profits for thousands of people over many years, are they the only things we need to take into consideration? At a time of financial hardship should we be encouraging gambling? There was sufficient outcry about Government assistance to the Sky City gambling facility indicate that we probably should not.

The racing industry was already in its death throes through, falling attendances and subsequent financial difficulties before Covid-19 and perhaps we will only postpone the inevitable.

There are also animal welfare issues to consider which have brought the industry into disrepute several times in recent years.

Is flogging an exhausted horse to make it run faster really any different to tying flank ropes on bulls and horses to make them buck at rodeos? We have seen enough horses die of heart attacks or exhaustion on the track or have to be shot after breaking legs to know there are probably hundreds of other such fatalities which we don’t see or hear about. We know that hundreds of racing dogs destroyed or rehomed each year if they don’t run fast enough. Are these things really much different to foxing hunting, bull fighting and bear baiting for sport and entertainment of ancient times? They were also deeply entrenched in tradition and folklore as well providing jobs, profits and gambling opportunities before most civilised nations outlawed them.

Riding horses for work or enjoyment and humanely hunting wild game for food are vastly different to the so-called sports which grew out to those activities.

It is drawing a very long bow to suggest racing is an essential industry that it needs to be propped up from the public purse at a time when we potentially face the most severe financial downturn since the 1930s.

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