Ritual debate over South Australian trading hours
by Bob Briton One of the rituals of South Australian political life is currently being played out again. The looming Easter and Anzac Day public holidays have again revived calls for extended shop trading hours from the usual quarters. Once more the public is being told that its wishes are being thwarted, fortunes are being lost, jobs opportunities are being passed up and tourists are set to stay away in droves from our dowdy State. Added to the usual list of apocalyptic visions this year is the threat that we will miss out on a $57 million worth of incentives from the Commonwealth' s National Competition Council. Monies from this body are handed over to the States when they meet certain standards in "deregulating" things like electricity, the water supply and transport. "Deregulation" in this context is a thinly disguised, neo-liberal code word for the handing over of parts of the economy to the complete control of big business. While South Australian governments of different persuasions have been outstanding in helping the privatisation and "deregulation" project along, shop trading hours remain as a blot on the State's copy book. SA has until June 30 to get into line on the issue or forgo its reward for good behaviour. Another unusual feature of the debate this year is that it is the Rann Labor Government behind the push to extend shopping hours and it is the Liberal opposition in the Legislative Council or upper house of parliament that is thwarting its efforts. The bosses have duly noted Labor's performance. The proposal to extend late night shopping to six nights a week and to allow up to ten Sunday trading days per year was described in an Advertiser editorial as a "laudable, yet minor, attempt to change shopping hours". The first anniversary of Labor's election victory has given rise to a spate of report cards on the Rann Government. Not surprisingly, 90 per cent of Liberal voters see the government as doing a good job. Bosses' peak council Business SA has declared itself generally satisfied with Labor but has warned that the honeymoon is over and that it is time to deliver on issues like extended shop-trading hours. Other heavyweight spokespersons are adding to the pressure. Stirling Griff of the Australian Retailers Association, Robert Atkins of the Harris Scarfe chain of department stores and John Samartzis of David Jones have all chimed in about their frustration at the present state of affairs. A number of larger retailers are attempting to establish defacto deregulation of the retailing industry by opening their doors in defiance of current legislation. It is estimated that up to 100 stores are already trading illegally. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, despite 81 site visits by government inspectors in the past 12 months, only two retailers have been prosecuted. Electrical retailer Gamblect Pty ltd of Mount Gambier was fined $2950 plus costs and timber store Momentum Brand Management of Norwood was fined $2000. John Brownsea is the executive director of the State Retailers Association, which represents smaller retailers who are opposed to extended hours for their transnational competitors. He says that some firms were trading illegally and were prepared to pay fines in order to bring the hours issue to a head. This is the current state of play in the shop trading hours debate in South Australia. Largely absent from media treatment of the issue is the future of the "micro-businesses" (like the distinctive Adelaide corner "deli's") set to be wiped out by big business or the matter of convenience for local shoppers from among an ageing population. The quality of the low paid McJobs to be created in a deregulated retail sector is also ignored. Of course, the notion of holidays where most of the community takes time out to rest and socialise together is considered passi by big business. By the way, the Liberals' big business credentials are still intact despite the fact that they voted down Labor's trading hours legislation. They were unwilling to support it while questions like pay rates remain to be tackled. They want industrial "reform" to be added to the bosses' shopping trolley, as well!