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Otago Daily Times reports in May of close to $38 million injected into the Dunedin economy at Easter, largely thanks to the Ed Sheeran concerts, were great news, but not surprising to anyone who was here. Mayor Dave Cull lauded both the economic and social impacts, saying the economic return was ‘‘tremendous’’, and that ‘‘It was wonderful to see families and people of all ages, both residents and visitors, getting involved in a variety of events over the weekend and having such a great time in our wonderful city.’’
That benefit was enhanced by the ability of retailers to open on Easter Sunday following a law change that enabled councils to decide if that could happen in their district.
So I was staggered to read a few days ago that the council had overwhelmingly voted to rescind its earlier decision to allow trading on Easter Sunday and go back to the previous, confusing regime.
It did so after a hearings committee heard union claims that some workers had been pressured to work by ‘‘big box’’ retailers. One union reported two workers claimed to have been pressured, and there was anecdotal evidence others had been as well, advising they were told by their employers they would be ‘‘letting the side down’’ if they did not work. No complaints to the Labour Inspectorate, mind you, just ‘‘anecdotes’’.
If it’s anecdotes that drives council decision-making, I’ve got a few: of the large employer that offered staff time and a-half for Easter Sunday even though they didn’t need to (Easter Sunday isn’t a Public Holiday); of employees clamouring to take up those shifts to earn extra money; of staff disappointed their employer decided not to open that day. That they weren’t submitted to council is probably due to a perception that the council wouldn’t look for reasons to turn the clock back. A naive perception, as it turns out.
Regardless of the veracity of those anecdotes, the idea that, as an alternative to actually punishing the odd errant employer, the solution is to shut retail trading down altogether when thousands of employers, employees and visitors benefited from it, is just ludicrous. There may not be another weekend like the Ed Sheeran phenomenon, but proactive planning and marketing of Dunedin as an attractive Easter destination is entirely possible.
I was in charge of passaging the legislation enabling local councils to decide for themselves whether to allow retailers to open on Easter Sunday. Some, including Cr Christine Garey last week, have suggested the previous government should have passed a blanket law for all. The reality is that had the law been framed that way it would have triggered a conscience vote and been defeated. That would mean that the 110,000 people who attended those concerts, 67% of whom had come from out of Dunedin, and the many others who enjoyed what Dunedin had to offer that weekend, could not enjoy a meal out or some retail therapy that Sunday. That view also flies in the face of calls by Mr Cull and Local Government New Zealand for more localism in decision making and policy.
I was careful to frame the legislation so that working was a choice, and the decision not to work was protected from the sort of pressure the unions asserted had occurred. There are punishments against employers who do apply pressure. Let me be very clear: if anyone provides details of organisations that applied pressure on staff in breach of the legislation, I will lead a campaign against that behaviour. A complaint should be laid with the Labour Inspectorate and consumer pressure could be brought to bear on them. Transparency is the best disinfectant in these situations and if the union movement was serious about stamping out breaches of employment law it would join me in naming and shaming such employers. Anything else is hot air.
In the meantime, the council does the silent majority a major disservice and I call on them to rethink their blinkered and small-minded decision and allow retailers and their staff the choice to open on Easter Sunday. The sky didn’t fall in last Easter, and we risk losing the opportunity to make Dunedin the place to be every Easter.
- Michael Woodhouse is a Dunedin-based National Party List MP.