02/07/2009 - 00:00

Major players missing their opportunity

02/07/2009 - 00:00


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There’s something missing in the ‘debate’ over retail trading hours.

Major players missing their opportunity

THE possible defeat of Colin Barnett's attempt to reform Western Australia's antiquated retail trading laws should remind all within the business community that common sense does not always prevail in politics.

Despite what some would have us believe, the premier is not actually seeking to extend trading hours on weeknights. The truth is, independent grocers and many other stores can already open well into the evening throughout the week. What Mr Barnett is actually trying to do is remove anti-competitive restrictions to allow all stores, irrespective of the structure of their ownership, to open at these times.

The theory is, if there is more competition and more choice in the retail sector, consumers will get better prices, better produce and better service at locations more convenient to us.

In a world where rising cost-of-living pressures are forcing many families to work longer hours and balance competing interests in the family budget, you would think there'd be overwhelming public support for reforms aimed at delivering lower grocery bills and greater flexibility as to when families can do their weekly shop.

However, the fact that both the National Party and many within the Labor Party remain opposed to retail trading hours reform indicate that there has been little shift in public opinion since the 2005 referendum, at which a question aimed at reforming weeknight trading laws was resoundingly defeated.

The question many within industry and government circles will be asking themselves at the moment is: how could the public and their representatives in parliament not support such a commonsense reform?

However, this is the wrong question to be asking; the real question supporters of this reform should be asking is, what has happened since 2005 to change public opinion?

The opponents of retail trading hours reform - those stores that are currently protected from competition - ran a highly effective campaign ahead of the 2005 referendum that successfully portrayed reform as being damaging to both families and locally owned businesses.

A majority of voters voted against reform in the belief it would lead to workers in Coles and Woolworths stores having less time to spend with their families and that competition from these stores would force their local independent grocer out of business.

Understandably, in 2005, both major political parties played dead on the retail trading hours issue, with both (then) premier Geoff Gallop and (then) opposition leader Colin Barnett focused on winning the simultaneously staged general election.

While this was understandable, the decision of both Coles and Woolworths, the companies that would be the chief beneficiaries of retail trading hours reform, to stay out of the debate was less understandable. With only the independent grocers campaigning on the issue, it was no surprise the referendum was defeated.

Little has changed four years on. The independent grocers are actively campaigning against the reforms and both Coles and Woolworths remain largely silent - a silence that is mind-boggling.

With so much to gain, I would have expected television, radio and print advertisements aimed at countering the independent grocers campaign and educating the public about the many benefits of retail trading hours reform. The fact that Coles and Woolworths are playing dead indicates that they either don't care what happens or that they are assuming public and, hence, political support.

Given the huge commercial benefits retail trading hours reform would deliver to both them and their shareholders, it is hard to believe that Coles and Woolworths do not care. It is more likely that they are staying out of the debate so as not to draw attention to the fact that larger organisations - of which they are two - will be the main beneficiaries of the proposed reforms. However, given the failure of this strategy in 2005, one would think an alternative strategy of participating in the debate and communicating the many benefits of the reforms to the community might be worth considering.

The retail trading hours example should provide a lesson to everybody who seeks government reform in their favour. No matter how strong the convictions of our elected representatives, the reality is they are interested, first, in being elected and, second, in what they can do once elected. You can't do much if you are not in government.

There are many contentious issues in Western Australia about which industry regularly approaches government for reform. The commencement of uranium mining, the introduction of genetically modified crops, the development of privately owned and operated infrastructure, and the expansion of gaming licences at Burswood Casino are just a few examples of issues likely to confront the Barnett government in the years ahead.

The retail trading hours debate should be a lesson to those that would benefit from reform in these areas that they will make life a lot easier for the government, and give reform a much greater chance of success, if they actively participate in a public discussion that delivers public support for the reforms they seek.

n Daniel Smith is general manager of CPR Communications & Public Relations and was a senior adviser in both the Gallop and Carpenter governments.



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