Cameron Brewer: Easter Sunday bill will add confusion and cost

Image / iStock
Image / iStock

The annual media circus around Easter trading is set to publicly play out again. Some will argue help is on its way with new legislation imminent, but what will it solve?

The Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill passed its first reading in November. It seeks to allow shop trading on Easter Sunday by enabling Territorial Local Authorities (TLAs) to establish bylaws to exempt areas of their choosing from trading restrictions.

Proponents argue this will ensure greater local control - allowing for communities to decide not Wellington.

In reality enabling councils to decide on Easter Sunday trading will add significant legal and financial burden. It will also force council staff and elected representatives to rule on the conflicting needs of religious groups, local communities, and small and big businesses.

This was at the crux of the arguments put up by many TLAs, including Auckland Council's submission which I and every councillor supported.

I'm not against a legislative review. Anyone can see that Queenstown and Taupo's current exemption from trading restrictions compared to Rotorua and Wanaka's forced shutdown, are unfair.

For the likes of Rotorua the current shop trading exemption rules simply do not work for them. However this bill is like taking the proverbial sledgehammer to a walnut. Why not just relook at the historic exemptions and work with the likes of tourism districts concerned?

By allowing each and every TLA in the country to establish different Easter trading bylaws, some may argue central government is simply passing the buck on a tricky topic. It creates significant costs while lumping yet another responsibility on councils far exceeding their traditional role.

READ MORE: Retail NZ fights for Easter Sunday trading countrywide and may steal Christmas as well

If the bill is passed and Auckland Council's Governing Body then agreed to put the matter out for consultation, 21 local boards, key stakeholders and business and community groups across the Auckland region would need to be formally engaged for starters - at significant cost. What's more the legislation would require councils to revisit the bylaw every five years.

Furthermore Auckland Council could rule that Easter Sunday trading is ultimately a local board decision, not a regional one, which would probably result in some local board areas open and some closed - only adding to the current confusion and inconsistency, not addressing it.

Another big worry for ratepayers up and down the country is that councils will be under extreme pressure to exercise their new powers and could be exposed to significant legal challenge from the likes of big business if they attempt to protect Easter Sunday trading restrictions.

Councils would more than likely also need to stump up for signage to let people know what areas will be open and when. That's not to mention the compliance costs incurred by the likes of Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment inspectors that will be tasked checking up on shops that might be illegally open.

Now some may think, why shouldn't Kiwis be allowed to visit their local garden centre on Easter Sunday and surely this bill will sort that out once and for all. Well, no. Under the current law garden centres up and down New Zealand can already open on Easter Sunday.

It's Good Friday that is the vexed issue for garden centres, with many of them openly flouting the law and just taking the $1000 fines on the nose for opening that day. Mucking around with Easter Sunday won't change the annual Good Friday fiasco.

While it makes the six o'clock news every Easter, on reflection I don't believe there is much public mood for change. Most New Zealanders I believe would support keeping most businesses closed for 3.5 days out of 365.

What's more, local government policy advisors argue despite the annual media coverage, there is no actual hard evidence to suggest the current law isn't working for most of New Zealand.

Again, the main issue remains around exemptions for certain businesses and certain geographic areas. They need to be reviewed and arguably updated. Easter Sunday alone is not the pressing issue. However dare I say politicians are always keen to be seen doing something and are frustrated as many past attempts via the likes of private members bills haven't gone anywhere.

The Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal Act of 1990, which cemented the current rules, was a conscience vote and so too should the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill. It should not be subject to block party voting.

In the rush to tick 'Fix Easter trading' box, MPs need to also weigh up over the coming months whether this bill is going to actually advance Easter trading issues, or whether it's just going to add complication, as well as cost to ratepayers.

Cameron Brewer is the Auckland Councillor for Orakei and was a former chief executive of the Newmarket Business Association.

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