The Prime Minister said he was sick of the Easter Sunday trading issue flaring up year after year, so it appears the whip was applied to National MPs to enact legislation last week that passes the buck to city councils. The fact that National MPs did not divide as they usually do on a free vote on Sunday trading suggests a majority of Parliament was opposed to Easter opening, or at least wanted a national decision one way or the other. But it was not to be.
If John Key imagines the issue will not now flare up year after year, he is likely destined for disappointment. The argument, between local business associations on one side and churches and workers' unions on the other, will be focused next on councils instead of Parliament. But the Government's relief may be temporary.
Local decisions are bound to produce so many inconsistencies and so much resentment that before very long pressure probably will come on the Government to sort it out.
Easter Sunday should not be a difficult issue. It is one of very few non-trading days of the year; Christmas, Good Friday and Anzac Day (until 1pm) being the others. The others seem to be accepted by traders everywhere, even in Rotorua which has been agitating to open at Easter for years.
Rotorua has a case. Nearby Taupo has been able to open on Easter Sunday, as has Queenstown, under exemptions for specified tourist centres in the Shop Trading Hours Act 1990. Rotorua ought to have had an exemption too. The Government could easily have passed an amendment to give it one, instead of opening the door to pressure from business in all sorts of communities.
Easter is the definitive event in the Christian calendar, more important than even Christmas to practising Christians. That is not a consideration that will carry much weight for the majority of the population, but it is not necessary to be religious to value the existence of a few days a year when shops are closed and streets are quiet.
The traditional consideration, that these days are precious holidays for retail staff, carries only slightly more weight today. The Government put a clause in the bill that all shop employees have the right to refuse to work on Easter Sunday without providing a reason. But the Labour Party is right that this offers very little protection to staff who cannot afford to get offside with their employer.
Under the amended law, city and district councils will be able to decide whether shops may open anywhere in their jurisdiction on Easter Sunday. They are obliged to consult the community in some way before allowing trading across their whole district or in any part of it. The vexed issue of Easter trading seems almost guaranteed to erupt more often, over more localities, than it ever has previously.
New Zealand has liberal trading hours by comparison with most developed countries. The old saw about arriving on a Sunday and finding the country closed was never as unusual as we supposed. Most Western countries have quiet Sundays. We had only one remaining. Councils will probably succumb to their business lobbies, one after another.