06/02/2007 - 22:00

Voters treated with contempt

06/02/2007 - 22:00


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Clandestine political lobbying, restrictive retail hours, “bandit trading”, petty government enforcers, jailing and hefty fine threats, phony referendums, political opportunism, and much more.

Clandestine political lobbying, restrictive retail hours, “bandit trading”, petty government enforcers, jailing and hefty fine threats, phony referendums, political opportunism, and much more.

All are alive and well in Western Australia.

By now, voters know WA has the nation’s most archaic restrictive retail trading laws; laws that are largely unchanged since the early 20th century.

Consider, for instance, the celebrated but forgotten 1984 case, when Perth’s media dubbed a hard-working Perth CBD white goods retailer “The Bandit Trader”.

Today, that retailer, Ken Schultz, is a successful business broker who still adamantly believes all retailers should be permitted to trade whenever they wish; at midnight if they desire and it’s worth it to them.

The right to work on unhindered is what Eureka’s diggers sought.

They simply wanted to get on with working unhindered by petty government officials – armed troopers in their case, who were hounding and fining them.

Mr Schultz saw no reason for the ban from trading on Sundays, especially when retailers in Rockingham were selling hand over fist.

So he announced he’d be opening for business during a prohibited period; which he did.

For that, a government inspector launched charges and Mr Schultz was eventually fined and threatened with jail if he didn’t pay up.

Thankfully, the Schultz “Bandit Trader” affair had one positive outcome.

The folly of archaic bans on a business’s capacity to do business prompted then premier, Brian Burke, to contact Mr Schultz to say he’d be launching an assessment and investigation of WA’s horse and buggy retailing hours, with former industrial commissioner, Eric Kelly, heading the inquiry.

Among other things, the Kelly report – probably the most farsighted of the Burke years – recommended moving towards the complete dismantling of our primitive nanny state trading regulations by instituting across-the-board state-wide freedom of trade, which, incidentally, does not exist across WA’s sparsely populated north-west.

It’s many years since State Scene read the 1986 Kelly report, so to save doing so again I telephoned Mr Kelly, who is now retired.

He said he’s not surprised the trading hours issue keeps resurfacing.

He had warned it would keep reappearing unless his recommendation to free-up WA’s retail sector over a five-year period – during 1987 to 1991 – was adopted.

To ensure vulnerable retailers weren’t unfairly affected during that readjustment phase, Mr Kelly recommended the establishment of an interim tribunal to confront, adjudicate and help iron-out any unexpected unfairness.

Had his advice been heeded, WA would now be in its 17th year of free market retailing.

Unfortunately, it never happened.

However, Mr Kelly added that limited reforms had occurred, including Saturday afternoon trading.

It’s hard to believe shops once closed at noon on Saturday.

Another reform has been the abolition of weekend petrol station rostering.

Unregulated petrol vending now exists on Sundays.

Who can forget those dreadful regulated times when one drove to petrol stations, hopped out of your vehicle, walked to the closed station’s door to read a tiny roster notice that told you where the nearest operating station for that weekend was?

And who remembers driving around searching for that station if you’d left your street directory at home or in your spouse’s car?

Yes, we put up with such stupidities for decades, in much the way as we’re putting up with restricted shopping, 21 years after the Kelly report recommended freedom of trade.

Not widely realised is that, since the Kelly report was submitted, respective retail sector ministers in the Burke, Dowding, Lawrence, Court, Gallop and now Carpenter governments – 1987 to 2007 – have been secretly lobbied by various retailers to ensure their competitors are blocked from trading to the perceived disadvantage of the lobbyists.

Customer convenience and freedom of choice don’t matter, it seems.

Such ongoing clandestine lobbying continues to this day and the biggest losers are, of course, customers, who are denied shopping convenience.

And yes, as taxpayers we’re still funding unnecessary petty bureaucratic enforcers who monitor retailers to ensure they aren’t transgressing our primitive restrictive trading arrangements.

And such enforcers have power to initiate court actions and threaten retailers with fines and jail if they transgress these archaic laws.

The diggers who tragically perished at Eureka would be disgusted.

But the farcical situation has now reached new depths of undemocratic absurdity.

During 2004, both the Liberal and Labor parties were heavily lobbied by owners of Perth’s many mini super-markets because of the forthcoming February 2005 state election.

The Liberals – who, can you believe it, continue to see their party as backing free enterprise – were moving towards ensuring limits remained on retail shopping hours.

Labor’s upper echelons appear to have been split – with some in favour of updated retail hours, as Mr Kelly urged the Burke government to institute. Others feared electoral consequences.

Labor knew the right and modern thing to do, but feared a close election and the threat from the Colin Barnett-led Liberals.

Moreover, well-heeled mini-supermarket owners had combined and threatened to bankroll Liberal candidates if Labor moved to modernise retailing.

It was the fear of this threat that prompted then premier, Geoff Gallop, to isolate the retailing issue from the election by announcing a retailing referendum.

Using the referendum as a ploy meant the election was strategically cocooned from the retailing question.

Then, WA’s ‘lobbyists of last resort’, Brian Burke and Julian Grill, were hired by the mini-supermarket proprietors to devise an emotive campaign to win the hearts (but not minds) of voters.

This they did with the now notorious and emotive chicken-and-fox campaign, with Coles and Woolworth’s portrayed as fox-like predators, and the not exactly struggling mini-supermarket proprietors as battlers.

Now tragedy follows farce.

Last month, Treasurer Eric Ripper flagged the idea of overturning the February 2005 statewide democratic referendum.

Mr Ripper went along with Dr Gallop’s referendum ploy of not confronting voters at an election over this because he feared mini-supermarket owners would bankroll Liberal campaigns against Labor in marginal seats.

Now, 24 months on, he’s begun moves to overturn a majority vote that was unfortunately swayed against free trade by the emotive Burke-Grill advertising campaign.

That’s hardly democratic. Like or lump the outcome of the referendum that’s how the people voted.

But when it comes to considering WA politicians’ anti-democratic credentials, Mr Ripper is no orphan.

After all, state parliament did exactly what Mr Ripper now proposes in relation to another issue.

Cast your minds back to November 2006 and the issue of daylight saving.

Although most electors voted against the adoption of daylight saving at the April 1991 referendum, that didn’t stop most Liberal and Labor MPs ignoring that democratic decision by imposing the clock change for the next three summers.

State Scene wishes to be absolutely clear here. It’s not being claimed that majority referendum decisions should be set in reinforced concrete forever; far from it.

What’s objectionable is when politicians move unilaterally to reverse majority statewide referendum votes. That should only be done by another referendum, another statewide vote.

The politicians backing daylight saving should, therefore, have proposed another referendum as a first step.

Instead, they usurped powers they shouldn’t have and introduced daylight saving legislatively by simply ignoring the 1991 referendum result.

This, as well as being undemocratic, was doing things back-to-front.

Nor should Mr Ripper now have the power to try to reverse the outcome of the retailing referendum.

Anything short of another referendum on that issue is unacceptable and undemocratic.

Last December’s undemocratic politician-imposed daylight saving and Mr Ripper’s belated moves to do the same on the trading hours referendum shows WA-style referendums are phony exercises; something called ‘guided democracy’ in banana republics.

Now, 21 years after the Kelly report urged a modernising of the retail sector, we still have clandestine lobbying, restrictive shopping hours, government-paid anti free-trading enforcers, hefty fines for anyone bucking archaic retail regulations, and now even unashamed perversion of the referendum process.


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