How embarrassing for our parliamentarians as they strut about the land proclaiming how powerful and decisive they are, that Auckland Council has to meet tomorrow to clear up a mess that MPs have resolutely been ducking for the last 27 years.

A year ago, in a last cowardly move, Parliament tossed the problem of the archaic Easter Sunday trading restrictions over to local councils up and down the land, and told them to do their worst. That followed at least 11 failed parliamentary private members bills since 1990, trying to sort out the mess.

Depressingly, Auckland Council bureaucrats have caught the parliamentary inertia bug and are recommending the politicians vote tomorrow for the status quo lunacy. This permits, for example, shops along Parnell Road to open from 10am to 6pm on Easter Sunday, but bans shopping in neighbouring Newmarket, along Ponsonby Road and in the malls dotting the region.

The Auckland bureaucrats have wasted, at a quick guess, tens of thousands of dollars of ratepayers cash on surveys, economic benefit analysis and the like. This included a scientific poll by research company Colmar Brunton, of 1,600 Auckland, which showed a minority of 42 per cent favouring the status quo, and a "self-selecting" Public Engagement Survey, in which 68 per cent of 2,027 participants similarly wanted no change.


The economic analysis revealed the unremarkable fact that electronic card expenditure was "low" on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when shopping restrictions are in place, and "spiked" on the days before and after. It concluded that if restrictions were lifted, spending over the period would even out! It concluded the "annual economic benefit of opening more shops on Easter Sunday was likely to be very minimal (0.005 per cent - five thousandths of 1 per cent of annual gross domestic product)."

As I sit down to despatch my latest $872.48 rates payment to Auckland Council, I can't help wondering if this was an acceptable use of my hard-earned cash.

After all, Easter trading reform is not about GDP at all. It's about removing anomalies in the trading laws that for years, have been increasingly ignored, both by traders, and by the government inspectors charged with enforcement.

In 1980, after a 35-year ban on weekend trading except for "emergency goods," Saturday trading was reintroduced. Ten years later came 7-day trading, except for the three major Christian holy days and Anzac Day morning. There were anomalous exceptions from the start. A tourist town like Queenstown could trade on these days, but not Rotorua. In 2001 came an exemption for the corner dairy, but not the supermarket.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Garden centres have led the civil disobedience, defiantly opening on both Good Friday and Easter Sunday for years. Last Easter, Oderings Garden Centre director Julian Odering said his business had paid more than $20,000 in fines and court fees since 1992.

Last August, the National government couldn't take the embarrassment any more, and tossed the parcel to territorial authorities to decide. They dressed it up as an exercise in democracy, letting local communities decide what's best for them. But the reality is, it was a cop-out destined to compound the existing confusion. It has.

Putting aside Anzac Day, the historic justification for the three non-shopping days, is they are the three main Christian holy days. In addition, unions don't want to lose a day off for employees. Last August's Shop Trading Hours Act, gave employees the right to refuse to work on Easter Sunday for any reason, so that's covered.

As for the religious issue, parliamentarians as good as buried that one in the same legislation when they supported the principle of universal Easter Sunday trading, but tossed it over to the local councils to decide where.

It's now up to Auckland councillors to show the leadership lacking at the centre. The present ban is a relic from the 1980s when our parliamentarians still pretended we were a Christian nation and that somehow shopping on Her day would offend God.

At the 2013 census, less than half of us identified ourselves as Christian. Indeed 42 per cent ticked the No Religion box.

It's time to accept this 21st century reality. If the majority want to shop on Easter Sunday, then why not? I'm sure God has more pressing problems to worry about.