Attempts to loosen outdated Easter trading laws have degenerated into a farce worthy of sketches by Monty Python or the late, great John Clarke.

Local councils now get to decide for themselves who can trade today.

As the Business Herald's Matthew Theunissen has been reporting, we've ended up with rules that will allow trading today in Napier but not Hastings, in central Taupo but not outer Taupo.

In Queenstown an exemption for the tourism industry means shops can trade every day across Easter. But in Auckland only Parnell Rd gets an exemption and it is only good from 10am-6pm today.

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How about this doozy from Dunedin?

The Carnegie Centre has an exemption to sell arts, crafts, children's toys and books on Easter Sunday: "Toys and books sold only while performances happening on the mezzanine floor," according to the exemption in the Shop Trading Hours Act.

In Nelson, crafts can be sold "whenever Founders Park is open" (apparently it will be today).

Do those crafts include craft beer? I hope so. How do you define "craft".

Actually, the Nelson council did, in a 1984 statute that remains on the books.

They must be "cottage" arts and crafts handcrafted in a "traditional or historical" manner.

There are also Friday and Sunday trading exemptions for dairies, service stations, takeaways, bars, restaurants and cafes, duty-free stores and shops providing services rather than selling goods, such as a hairdresser.

But garden centres are only exempted on Sunday.

Oderings Garden Centre director Julian Odering says he finds this perplexing.
Traditionally, Friday is the more holy day in the Christian calendar but I don't know if there are rules about garden centres in the Bible because I've never believed in gardening.

Seriously, though, this is a special religious day for many people but this is a business column. So let me deftly sidestep any spiritual debate and the issue of whether religion is a reasonable basis for any law making in a modern democracy.

I accept that as a society we can choose to impose rules about trading for cultural reasons.

The Government can enforce those rules if it feels it has a political consensus for doing so.

We do this with very little controversy on Anzac Day morning.

But the Government has equivocated weakly on this one.

Rather than making a definitive call, it has sent the country down an Easter Bunny hole of exemptions, loopholes and anomalies.

Easter eggs are nice, but the rules around shopping on the long weekend are bonkers. Photo / 123RF
Easter eggs are nice, but the rules around shopping on the long weekend are bonkers. Photo / 123RF

The rules are a joke, worthy of Python or Clarke.

There's a reason the satire and comedy of the 1970s was so obsessed with mocking rules and bureaucracy.

It ruled people's lives. Clarke's comic sensibility was forged in the fires of Robert Muldoon's New Zealand.

It was a place where you needed a sticker on your car to tell you which days you could drive.

It was a time when Parliament could freeze wages and prices and you needed a licence to buy things from overseas.

We have been politically backtracking from Muldoon-ism ever since.

The prospect of inane complexities is exactly why the National Government argues against removing GST on healthy foods or applying regional fuel taxes and tourism levies.

The Government specifically made the point in 2010 when there was a bill before Parliament to exempt some foods from GST.

"In our view, what makes the system work well is the simplicity," John Key said. "Once you start exempting one part, meat and vegetables, then why wouldn't [you exempt] other parts of the food equation."

But in this case, Government has hypocritically shouted: "Local democracy" and kicked the issue for touch.

Key was right. The arguments over definitions never end. We descend into the comical territory of European Union banana definitions - which are all very funny until people become enraged and you have a populist voter backlash on your hands.

In a way New Zealand did have its backlash in 1984 after we got fed up with car-less days and import licences.

Although I definitely don't wish to make light of anyone's religious beliefs on an Easter Sunday, I don't feel so generously disposed towards local body politicians.

If you've ever sat through a local government meeting (I did my share of the old community boards) then you'll know grassroots democracy can be a tedious affair, handicapped by the lack of interest that normal people have in it until the council decides to put a skate park next to their house.

Then all of a sudden everyone gets a say. Everyone!

And so it is with Easter trading rules. It only takes some bloke down the back to say: "What about my home-made candles" and you have another two hours of democracy to work through.

Brain power that could have been solving the local housing crisis or funding a kids' playground is diverted and eventually a meaningless compromise is reached.

"Okay you can sell the candles but only when the park is open and only if there are at least two clowns and one juggler on site. And no bloody gardeners!"