Wollongong stores will be allowed to open their doors on Boxing Day after changes to retail trading laws passed the NSW Parliament’s upper house on Wednesday night.
The move has pleased the Illawarra Business Chamber (IBC), which says the new legislation will level the playing field for businesses, but the retail workers’ union has slammed the government for “ruining Christmas”.
Christian Democrats leader Fred Nile split with church leaders – including the Catholic Bishop of Wollongong, Peter Ingham – to support the Retail Trading Amendment (Boxing Day) Bill 2017 and ensure the legislation passed.
The bill, which follows a two-year Boxing Day trial in Wollongong, will see December 26 trading extended across the state.
Previously, Wollongong retailers couldn’t open on Boxing Day, despite their Shellharbour, Kiama and Wingecarribee counterparts being able to trade.
During debate in the Legislative Council on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Nile quoted joint correspondence from Wollongong City Council and the IBC, which said the two-year trial of December 26 trading in Wollongong had “greatly benefited” the city’s centre.
“The 2016 Boxing Day trade was very successful in Wollongong, with 95 per cent of GPT retailers, which is the major CBD shopping centre, opting to trade, and shopper traffic count 19 per cent higher than the previous maximum trade day,” he said.
The Parliament also heard Wollongong – the state’s third largest city with a population of 211,000 – had “not been able to trade on Boxing Day through an anomaly in legislation, while Stockland Shellharbour has been able to trade”.
“We have turned a disaster into a success story through this legislation. Wollongong was suffering economic downturn and through the legislation it has recaptured its prosperity,” Mr Nile said.
Among the church leaders to oppose Boxing Day trading was the Most Reverend Peter Ingham, the Catholic Bishop of Wollongong.
A letter from Most Reverend Ingham to Mr Nile was read aloud in the Parliament.
“Dear Rev Nile, I am asking your consideration to vote against the Government legislation to extend Boxing Day trading,” the letter said.
“This is out of concern for retail workers having two days family time to properly celebrate Christmas like everyone else.
“The religious nature of Christmas plus the way people often travel in order ‘to come home’ for Christmas surely outweighs the commercial need for more time to shop.”
Mr Nile told Fairfax Media he supported the legislation on the basis that Christmas Day would be protected and that maximum fines would be imposed on employers who coerced employees to work on Boxing Day.
He said church leaders were happy to accept the legislation because “we have a guarantee from the government there will be no changes to any legislation dealing with Christmas Day”.
“We are supporting the Boxing Day trading bill as the people of NSW outside city and tourist areas need the opportunity to shop,” he said.
‘Greater surety and consistency’
IBC executive director Chris Lamont last week welcomed the bill’s introduction, saying the trial of Boxing Day trading was an “outstanding success for retailers in Wollongong and Shellharbour”.
“You had the situation where shoppers were not able to support local retailers in the Illawarra,” Mr Lamont said.
“The previous situation saw the loss of trade and employment hours from the region. Boxing Day is now one busiest trading days for retail businesses.”
Mr Lamont said concerns around retailers and employees being forced to open or work on Boxing Day had been addressed in the legislation.
“The decision to legislate Boxing Day trade will provide greater surety and consistency for businesses across the region and also provides a further incentive for tourists looking to visit the Illawarra over the Christmas and New Year period,” he said.
Christmas at risk: union
The union representing retail staff says Illawarra workers will be robbed of the chance to spend the Christmas period with their loved ones.
SDA NSW secretary Bernie Smith said Treasurer Dominic Perrottet had chosen to “play the role of the Christmas Grinch this year”.
“He’s intent on ruining Christmas for retail workers and their families,” Mr Smith said.
“By allowing Boxing Day trading he is forcing workers from across the Illawarra region to work when they should be enjoying time with family and friends.
Prior to the legislation passing, Mr Smith said it was the “Christmas wish of many Illawarra workers to be able to have two days off – Christmas and Boxing Day”.
“There’s plenty of time for shopping, but Christmas only comes around once a year,” he said.
More choice for shoppers, strict safeguards in place: Treasurer
Treasurer Dominic Perrottet has told Parliament the government was committed to reforming retail laws to provide more certainty and choice for consumers, retailers and employees.
He said the existing laws had prevented shops in western Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and Dubbo from opening while those in the Sydney CBD, Bondi and tourist areas could open.
“If people want to trade, work or shop on Boxing Day, it makes sense that they can choose to do so irrespective of their location, keeping retail dollars in their local communities,” Mr Perrottet said.
The Treasurer said the government’s priority now was to educate the public that no one be forced to work on Boxing Day – and retailers who do so may be subject to heavy penalties.
“To ensure retailers and their employees are fully aware of their rights, the Government will work with retailers, unions and industry organisations to develop a comprehensive information campaign ahead of Boxing Day this year,” he said.
The legislation provides strict safeguards to protect workers, with retailers who force staff to work on December 26 facing fines of up to $11,000 per employee.
The government will conduct an inquiry from October 2019 to further assess the impact of the reforms.