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Shopping times debacle

WHEN it comes to the shopping hours issue none of WA’s political parties are worth a crumpet.

They either back outdated trading regulations, find excuses not to scrap them or hope the issue goes away.

As long as there’s injustice – and WA’s discriminatory Sunday trading laws are unjust in the extreme – this question will remain controversial.

Last week Gerry Harvey warned he’d open his 21 WA Harvey Norman stores on Sundays so customers could shop and buy.

How did John Kobelke – the man with the inappropriate title of Consumer Protection Minister (he should be known as the Anti-Consumer Minister) – respond?

He promptly ordered shop inspectors in his misnamed Department of Consumer Protection (it should be called the Consumer non-Protection Department) to monitor Harvey Norman stores on Sundays.

In other words, a team of taxpayer-funded officers were told to spy on someone involved in commercial activity, as occurred across Bolshevised Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989.

“There are retail traders out there who feel aggrieved,” Mr Kobelke said.

“I can respect that but it does not give them the right to break the law.”

Well, Mr Kobelke, scrap WA’s silly anti-business and anti-convenience laws so all – not just some – retailers can trade on Sundays.

Few realise that only those regions of WA that lie below the 26th parallel, minus a few so-called tourism precincts, are subjected to restrictive shopping hours.

Also not widely realised is that the thinking underpinning those restrictions hails from the 1890s.

What happened then was that some European shopkeepers ganged up by lobbying WA’s first generation of post-colonial MPs to ensure that mainly Chinese shopkeepers were forced to shut their doors when the Europeans no longer wanted to work so the latter did not need to match the Chinese.

In other words the Europeans used the powers of the state – including shop inspectors – to eliminate competition and, at the same time, inconvenienced shoppers.

This devious behaviour received the innocent sounding title of the Early Closing Bill.

Here’s what MLA Sir Walter James said of that bill in 1897.

“I think I am right in saying there is an overwhelming majority of European shopkeepers, not only in Perth, however, throughout the larger country towns, who are in favour of legislation being introduced which will protect them against the unfair competition of Asiatics and others.”

Note how Sir Walter portrayed those willing to sell – the so-called Asiatics – as perpetrators of unfairness, not the other way around.

That’s precisely how retailers such as Harvey Norman, Woolworths and Coles are now being blackened by those seeking to ensure Sunday trading remains limited to shops with 10 or fewer employees, therebyp bequeathing them a Government-sponsored Sunday monopoly.

Earlier MLC Frederick Crowder, who also backed the 1897 European shopkeepers’ ploy of politically outlawing competition, put it thus: “The true reason for bringing forward this bill is the desire of the large storekeepers to stifle competition and stop the Chinese trading.

“Asiatics no doubt should not compete with Europeans.”

Interestingly, Mr Harvey’s current imbroglio is a re-run of that faced in 1983 by another Perth electrical goods trader, Ken Schultz, who the media dubbed “The Rebel Trader”.

Mr Schultz, now a leading Perth business broker, owned Gerald’s Electrics, with two stores.

Last week he recounted his torrid 1983 experiences to State Scene.

Then, like today, some shopkeepers could trade on Sundays, while others, like Gerald’s Electrics, could not.

“If your electrical store was in what was called a holiday precinct like Rockingham, you could trade on Sundays,” Mr Schultz said.

However, he had located his stores in Perth and Victoria Park.

So he decided to buck the unjust law and opened the doors of both stores on Sundays. Shortly afterwards, however, he was summonsed to appear in court where he was find $600.

So outraged was Mr Schultz that he resolved to go to jail rather than pay up.

His staff quietly paid the fines meaning he celebrated Christmas ’83 with his family.

However, Mr Schultz’s move created such a media rumpus that the Burke Government launched a trading hours inquiry, which Industrial Commissioner Eric Kelly headed. His report concluded that WA’s arcane shopping regulatory system wasn’t justified.

“On the contrary, it appears to me to interfere with the liberty of the individual without any real warrant or justification,” Mr Kelly wrote.

“It gives an advantage to some retailers over others; to some classes of retailers over others; and to retailers in some areas of WA 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.

“It makes judgements 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.”

Although this report urged orderly dismantling of shopping restrictions, 20 years on they are still with us.

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