17 October 2009

The 800-pound gorilla standing in the way of extended trading hours

We keep hearing the same arguments against deregulation of retail trading hours in Western Australia: small shops will be put out of business by Coles and Woolworths and the results of the referendum held in 2005 on this issue show that the public do not want reform. Unfortunately, we would be naive to assume that the opponents of deregulation who give these flawed arguments have the general community's interests at heart and not their own.

The ACT and Northern Territory both have completely unregulated trading hours. Tasmania's trading hours are unregulated on all but two and half days of the year. Notwithstanding the claims made by the independent grocers' lobby, liberalisation of trading hours in other states and territories has not had an adverse impact on the performance of independent grocers.

The people were not asked in the 2005 referendum whether they wanted extended trading hours, but whether they thought it was good public policy. Furthermore, IGA led a fear campaign in the lead up to the referendum with claims such as extending trading hours threatens 15,000 jobs, which is totally absurd.

All the economic debate that has surrounded this policy issue is just a distraction from the grubby rent seeking and politics that are driving the resistance to reform. Metcash, the distributor for IGA and Foodworks that benefits from the current regulatory regime, donated a total of $26,000 to the WA Nationals for the financial year of 2007/2008, as reported on the Australian Electoral Commission's website.

Donations to WA Nationals for 2007/2008 reported by donors

The disclosed donations for the financial year of 2008/2009 are yet to be published, but they will be interesting indeed. The Barnett Liberal government introduced legislation to extend retail trading hours, but this was blocked by the Nationals and Labor opposition. The Liberal government then explored an alternative approach to extending trading hours without passing legislation through the Western Australian Parliament: extending the boundaries of the Perth tourism precinct, which the Nationals said they would block via a disallowance motion—they even blocked changes that didn't affect the constituents of any of the seats they hold.

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