God or Mammon?

Parliament, as it so often does, tried to design a horse with its legislative provisions controlling private enterprise during Easter, and instead produced a camel.

There is nothing about the regulations that can in 2010 be considered just and necessary, let alone reflective of contemporary society.

The creation of geographic exemptions to trading on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, meaning some places can open their doors while others must close - backed by farcically small penalties - is simply unjustly partial.

Legislation which permits gambling and the sale of alcohol in cafes or restaurants on Easter Sunday but nowhere else is outdated; permitting petrol stations to sell everything from food to compact discs and fishing tackle while prohibiting sales by other retailers is grossly partial.

But there is nothing about Parliament's successive attempts to remain several steps behind public opinion that gives confidence matters will improve.

It is hard to believe that the House has been toying unsuccessfully with shop trading hours for 30 years.

The Muldoon National government passed the legislation in 1980 which provided for shops to be open on Saturdays, and also broadened the range of heavily restricted goods able to be sold on Sundays.

The world did not come to a halt as a result; indeed, apart from the predictable complaints from the unions, the public in general welcomed the measure, which also signalled the decade's major social change - the end of the five-day, 40-hour working week.

The former National MP Katherine O'Regan introduced a Bill 16 years later to correct some anomalies in the system, which by then included retail Sunday trading; it failed to achieve a desirable result, and still today the problems continue.

Adding fuel to the discontent is the misinterpretation of by now complex legislation by Labour Department bureaucrats, giving misleading and downright wrong guidance to retailers and others.

Before 1990, most shops could not trade on any Sunday and were unable to open on nine of the 11 recognised public holidays (Easter Sunday is not a designated public holiday and therefore not subject to holiday pay rates).

Today they can trade on 51 out of 52 Sundays, and on every public holiday except Good Friday, Christmas Day, and the morning of Anzac Day.

Seven-day shopping has undoubtedly been very popular, both with customers and retailers, not to say of benefit to the economy.

The economic argument, however, is often countered by speculating that if a business cannot be viable on the 361 days of the year that most shops can currently legally open, then one more day's trade will not add sufficient value to that business to justify loosening the regulations.

Organised retail workers - or their union bosses - have been among the most vocal in challenging efforts to open trading on both Good Friday and Easter Sunday, especially the latter, although staff cannot be forced to work on either day.

The churches and some other organisations have also been traditionally opposed to the secular world interfering with the commemoration of Christianity's most important event.

Whether the country is quite ready for a carte blanche liberalisation of the law, including Good Friday, Easter Sunday - or even Christmas Day - is certainly doubtful, though less so than a decade or two ago.

The public has clearly shown by the willingness it has to empty its wallet or play sport or participate in commercial recreation and entertainment activities throughout Easter that it wants to be able to make the choice; many tourists, both domestic and international, appear still to want to shop; crafts and farmers' markets appear to have an unsatisfied demand to meet.

It is time for the matter to be settled and the only way that will happen is to abandon the so-called "personal vote" in Parliament and achieve suitable legislation by way of a Government Bill.

Whether John Key's administration has the fortitude to do so, or is prepared to risk the undoubted wrath of church and union, is arguable: Mr Key agrees the present regulations are a shambles and would like them to be liberalised, and he has voted accordingly in the past.

It is time for a national solution: declaring Easter Sunday to be a public holiday would protect workers' wage levels, and sending a Bill to a select committee would ensure public opinion - more accurately reflecting the times in which we live rather than electorate pressure on individual MPs - could be canvassed.

An Anzac Day match on retail hours for Good Friday and Easter Sunday might well achieve the preferred compromise.