Michael Woodhouse is right. The rules governing shop trading on Easter Sunday are complex and relatively arbitrary. It makes no sense that retailers in Queenstown and Taupo can open their doors but those in Wanaka and Rotorua cannot. But remedying this should be simple enough. It should not be the cue for the Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety to announce legislation that is ill-judged on several levels.
Most fundamentally, it paves the way for the further encroachment of commercialism into the small number of days that many people, justifiably, view as sanctuaries. An increasingly multicultural society may no longer hold such a reverent view of Easter Sunday, and many of its members do not observe it as a religious occasion. But a large number, even agnostics and atheists, value such days on an emotional level. This is much-needed time to spend with family or relaxing. That will be lost for those who feel obliged to work and the retailers who will open merely because they believe they must keep up with their competitors.
The view that there should be a small number of days free of materialism has been reflected in the failure over the years of several private member's bills seeking to liberalise trading hours. The latest, produced by National Party MP Jacqui Dean just three years ago, was roundly defeated 70-49 in a conscience vote. A group of National MPs, including Mr Woodhouse, opposed it.
The same fate would be on the cards today if there was another conscience vote. But National has eliminated that possibility. Its MPs will be instructed to vote for the bill.
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To heap insult on injury, the legislation is significantly flawed. Its passes the buck to local councils to enact bylaws enabling businesses in their areas to open on Easter Sunday. Those keen to harvest the tourist dollar are bound to say yes. Some, however, may be of a make-up that rejects the opportunity. In that case, one town or city may be open while another not far down the road will be shut. Tourists will have reason to be confused. Not that they will be unfamiliar with the practice of shops in countries around the world closing their doors on certain days of the year.
Fixing the unfair advantage handed to retailers in the likes of Taupo and Queenstown need not produce a mish-mash of responses, along with businesses opening in areas where there is little demand and even less desire. The country's main tourism areas could simply be exempted from the current shop trading law. A town or city's right to class itself in that category could be adjudicated by an independent agency.
As it is, Mr Woodhouse's announcement has prompted an inevitable reaction. Those shopkeepers who believe they should be able to open whenever they want are already asking for Good Friday to be treated the same as Easter Sunday. But this is an issue where popular sentiment, not commercial zeal, should prevail. The Government needs to establish a genuine public demand for Easter Sunday opening outside major tourist areas before proceeding any further.