08/07/2010 - 00:00

Biting the bullet on retail reform

08/07/2010 - 00:00

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Colin Barnett may like to accentuate the positive, but he got a grilling at a recent business forum when the topic turned to retail trading reform.

THE premier, Colin Barnett, was in an expansive mood when he spoke glowingly of the state’s economic prospects at a recent forum for business leaders.

The news was good and the audience receptive. But there was a discordant note when the topic turned to the government’s proposed retail trading reforms.

Mr Barnett likes to accentuate the positive. And this occasion was no exception.

Despite the (then) uncertainty over the resource super profits tax, Europe being awash with debt, and the stock market in roller-coaster mode, the premier was going for growth.

“I expect this state to have, certainly in the next decade, probably 20 years, of strong economic growth probably averaging annually around 6 per cent or so,” he told the forum.

The premier added there was $170 billion of ‘realistic’ investment on the drawing board, with the mining and petroleum sector dominant, and that, effectively, the sky was the limit.

“I would expect that by the end of this decade Western Australia will be producing over half of Australia’s exports – our economy is very entwined with Asia,” he said.

Mr Barnett was undeterred by new Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s proposal to apply the brakes to Australia’s current high population growth, predicting that workers for the new projects would ”follow the dollars”.

To illustrate his point, he said that GNP per head for WA was $71,000, well ahead of the national average of $55,000.

Then he gave east coast critics a verbal biff, telling them: “ ... drop your patronising approach to this state – realise this is the future of the country.”

That dovetails into another of his predictions: that WA will be increasingly looking north over the horizon to Asia to conduct business, rather than over the Nullarbor to the east coast.

The premier’s optimism rests on the assumption that WA will continue to be lucky; that rapidly expanding Asian economies will continue to want our raw materials in ever-increasing quantities. And we need to be geared up to supply them.

The prospects look soundly based. Those economies have survived the global economic crisis, so far, and the future appears to be good.

Mr Barnett was confidence personified at the forum. In fact his unabashed promotion of the state’s economy was reminiscent of Sir Charles Court’s performance in the 1960s when, as minister for industrial development in Sir David Brand’s government, he beat the drum long and loud to attract investment for the Pilbara.

That’s when terms such as ‘the great state’ and ‘state on the move’ started to be churned out of Sir Charles’ office. And the record is there for all to see.

Coincidentally, National Party leader Brendon Grylls was in the Pilbara as the premier was speaking, announcing millions of dollars from his Royalties for Regions program to give the Pilbara’s towns a facelift. The aim? To make them more attractive for long-term residents, especially families, to coincide with mining expansion programs.

While the premier’s promotion of the economy at the forum was well scripted, the discordant note was struck over an issue he has found harder to manage – shopping hours.

Mr Barnett has obviously been pleased that a recent change of heart by the Labor Opposition has enabled another step to be taken towards his goal of major deregulation of retail trading.

He hopes parliament will now endorse weeknight shopping until 9 o’clock well before Christmas.

That means general Sunday trading in the metropolitan area remains the sticking point.

Labor is prepared to support stores selling mainly consumer durables to open on Sundays, but no blanket endorsement for the opening of the big shopping centres or trading by the national supermarket chains.

Even with the partial deregulation later in the year, the overall position will remain messy.

Enter Tony Howarth, one of the state’s most prominent directors, wearing his Wesfarmers board hat, who was part of the recent forum’s panel discussion.

“If we ran Bunnings – the same configuration of Bunnings – as we do on the eastern seaboard ... if we ran it here, we would have to rope off parts of Bunnings on Sunday,” he said. “Now to me that’s stupid.”

Mr Howarth may not have been aware of it, but there’s a precedent. In the 1950s, delicatessens opening on Sundays were forced to lock wire screens in front of shelves of various grocery items.

That was to ensure they did not get an edge over traditional grocery shops and emerging self-service stores that closed at noon on Saturday, and didn’t reopen until Monday morning.

Mr Barnett tried a light-hearted response.

“Well, Tony,” he said, “I’m just a humble servant of the people, you’re now on the board of WA’s biggest company I hear. And look, it would be simple if there would be any sense of agreement amongst the retail industry ... and that’s the dilemma.

‘‘You get three different retailers in a room, and you get three different opinions.”

But Mr Howarth wasn’t going to be fobbed off.

“I don’t think that’s abnormal in anything Colin,” he said, knowing it can also be applied to the premier’s speciality, economics.

“There’s a point in time where government just have to make a decision and get on with it.”

It seemed Mr Howarth wanted to make a point, especially on behalf of the state’s biggest company, which owns both Bunnings, which can trade on Sundays, and Coles, which, in the main, can’t.

Despite impatience, Mr Howarth may not have to wait too long. Mr Barnett has already flagged that, if re-elected in 2013, he will push on with general Sunday trading.

Although he can’t count on the Nationals for support, Labor could be more receptive.

Opposition leader Eric Ripper concedes it’s only a matter of time before the community accepts general Sunday trading. But he didn’t say when that might be.

Achieving that would be a feather in Colin Barnett’s cap. It would also get Tony Howarth off his back.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV’s state political reporter.

 

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