10/08/2011 - 10:53

Breaking the retail trade impasse

10/08/2011 - 10:53


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The vested interests in the debate over shopping hours are holding firm to their positions, making compromise difficult.

THE Productivity Commission’s timely report into retail trading hours, and its strong criticism of the highly regulated position in Western Australia, combined with the downturn in sales, should send a wake-up call to the state’s powerbrokers.

The simple message is, if you want to assist the retailers out of the current malaise that has struck the industry, don’t defer action until after the next election. The time to move is now.

All that is required is for the government to show some leadership, and for the opposition and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) to be prepared to reconsider their intransigent attitude towards reform. 

The beneficiaries would be the shoppers, who would have more flexibility, retailers who wanted to open at different hours, and shop assistants, who would have more chance of keeping their jobs. And more jobs might even be created.

But don’t hold your breath (for reasons I will come to).

Shopping hours have been a constant source of discontent for as long as anyone can remember. While most states have moved to free-up shopping, it should come as no surprise that the WA market remains one of the most regulated, along with Queensland and South Australia.

It was an issue when I was the industrial reporter at The West Australian in the 1970s. In those days, the genial John Try headed the union representing shop assistants.

Whenever the debate on more liberal trading arose, Mr Try’s usual response to my inquiries was: “The only reason your paper is interested in this issue (and it always was) is because it thinks it will get more advertising if trading hours are extended.” The union, of course, nearly always favoured the status quo.   

The paper said then, and is still saying, that reform is in the public interest. That is, in the interests of the people who read the paper; and fair enough. 

Readers will be affected by change, whether they are shopkeepers, shop assistants, or the all-important customers.

It is not as though successive WA governments have sat on their hands on this issue, however. In 1986, for example, then Labor minister Peter Dowding commissioned a report into shopping hours legislation by newly retired chief industrial relations commissioner, Eric Kelly.

Referring to the law controlling trading hours, Mr Kelly said in his report: “ ... it appeared clear to me that such a law could only be justified if it demonstrably saved the community from some serious and clearly perceived harm, or conferred on it some almost universally approved benefit.

“At the end of the inquiry I am satisfied that the present law in Western Australia serves neither of those purposes. It gives advantage to some retailers over others ...  and to retailers in some areas of the state over retailers in other areas. It protects some retailers from competition from other retailers. It creates obstacles to competition in an area in which the community is best served by competition.”

And Mr Kelly’s punch line: “It makes judgments about what the community wants in a sphere of activity in which the community itself should be left to demonstrate by its patronage what it wants.”  

I asked Mr Kelly this week what the then government had done with his report.

“I think it led to the introduction of more widespread trading on Saturday afternoons and tinkering around the edges in some other areas,” he said.

Asked his reaction to the Productivity Commission report, Mr Kelly said: “I’m not at all surprised at the report’s comments and recommendations. Anyone who looks at the issue dispassionately would have to come to the same conclusion. The only thing holding back change is politics.”

So what are the politics of shopping hours? Perhaps a good starting point in the current climate is the Labor government’s decision to hold a referendum on the issue to coincide with the 2005 general election. 

Supporters of holding the referendum thought it a smart move. It would take pressure off the government – Geoff Gallop was premier – to make a decision on freeing up opening times, and the people would decide.

It was a classic abrogation of responsibility. As often happens in referendums, voters were given a convoluted question rather than a simple one, such as ‘Do you support the removal of restrictions on when shops can open in the metropolitan area?’

The electorate rejected freeing-up opening times.

It was suggested, although not confirmed, that Dr Gallop’s late wife, Bev, had suggested to him before the election that a referendum would be a good idea. The line was (not well received in some Labor circles) that this would go down well in the electorate because the idea for the referendum came from the premier’s wife and, after all, it’s women who do most of the shopping.

I well remember the Sunday morning after Labor was returned in early 2005. Reporters and TV cameraman crammed into the Gallop kitchen in their Victoria Park home while Geoff and Bev enjoyed a ‘casual’ morning tea. 

The Australian’s columnist, the late Matt Price, asked Bev Gallop: “Is it true you suggested to Geoff that there should be a referendum on shopping hours?” At that point she stood up and fled into another room without answering the question, much to the amusement of all concerned. And the premier dissembled to get his wife off the hook.

Current Labor leader Eric Ripper pointed to the referendum result for his side’s lack of action following the latest report; but there is more to it than that.

There is support within Labor ranks for change, no doubt about it. But the SDA, led by its WA secretary Joe Bullock, opposes general trading on Sundays. And a significant number of MPs from Labor’s right owe their careers as MPs to Mr Bullock and his union, as their support in endorsement ballots is crucial.

Then there is the National Party, the partners in the governing alliance. Brendon Grylls and his team oppose general deregulation in the metropolitan area, claiming it would damage supermarkets in towns close to the city. People would head off to city shops to get all their supplies, and local businesses would suffer.

The Nationals also say smaller WA-owned supermarkets tend to buy more fresh produce locally. Those supermarkets could get hurt should the big two – Coles and Woolworths – be able to trade around the clock.

So while the Nationals and the SDA hold firm, nothing will change this side of the March 2013 state election. The only hope for more flexibility is either the government negotiates a deal with one of the opponents, or it wins a mandate in 2013.

Either way, it could be a long wait for WA to join the Northern Territory and the ACT with totally deregulated shopping hours.



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