Easter trading laws: The push to keep New Zealand's shops open gaining momentum

A politician pushing to overturn New Zealand's "idiotic" Easter trading laws believes there would be cross-party support for the move - and hopes 2022 is the last time businesses are forced to close over the holiday period.

ACT MP Chris Baillie last year put forward the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill, which if passed would allow retailers to keep their doors open as normal through Easter.

Under current legislation, retailers across the country are forced to shut up shop on both Good Friday and Easter Sunday - although some councils have adopted their own bylaws allowing them to open.

But even when venues open their doors over Easter, the rules are complex. Whether or not alcohol can be served, for instance, depends on where the customer lives, whether they're eating and how long they plan to stay.

You're allowed to operate as normal if your business is online, or you're a pharmacy, a grocery store or a garden centre; so too if you provide a service, such as a hairdresser or beauty salon - as long as you're not planning on selling any products.

Then there's the exemptions.

Own a shop on Parnell Rd in Auckland? You can open over Easter. Same with if you're on Market Place or Collins Rd in Hamilton, or if you're the Christchurch Arts Centre, Dunedin's Carnegie Centre or within the Napier Harbour Market. You can also operate in Nelson, so long as Founders Park is open.

Paihia, Picton, Taupō and Queenstown can also keep their shops open as they're deemed tourist towns.

Baillie told Newshub the rules as they stand aren't fit for purpose and ready for an overhaul.

"Businesses these days really need as much help as they can get. Imposing these sorts of restrictions in this day and age we think is just unnecessary."

Chris Baillie believes his Easter trading bill would have support from across Parliament.
Chris Baillie believes his Easter trading bill would have support from across Parliament. Photo credit: Facebook

But his proposed law change is currently at the mercy of the biscuit tin - a lucky dip system for putting member's bills up for debate whenever there's room on the parliamentary agenda. Until his bill is picked out, it's up to councils to decide what's best for their communities.

Although Baillie doesn't think it'll take long for changes to come into force one his bill is selected. He reckons most Kiwis and MPs would be behind the change.

"I think if it got picked next time, it'd be well and truly in by next Easter," he said.

"I'm sure we'll have the unions jumping up and down. But even employees, I believe, will really see the benefit of this, where they can work and actually earn those penal rates and all that sort of stuff. A lot of people actually want to work it [Easter]."

In 2016 the Government changed the law so councils were in charge of shop trading hours, and since then the majority have allowed businesses to open on Easter Sunday.

But while councils in Carterton, Timaru and Hauraki embraced Easter trading, councils in the big centres never followed suit. Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Hamilton have all retained their bans on trading on Sunday, with hefty fines in store for businesses caught flouting the rules.

In explaining why Auckland didn't adopt a local policy, Mayor Phil Goff suggested last year it's good that some days aren't commercialised.

"It wasn't that people were necessarily voting for religious reasons, some of them may have been... the thought that there are some special times of celebration in our year where it's good for people to be able to spend time with their families and you don't need to shop every day of the year," he said.

Other detractors of Easter trading law changes say the wellbeing of retail staff should be at the forefront of business owners' minds, and workers should have the opportunity to be with family and rest.

Baillie understands the argument, but points out a law change is simply about giving businesses the choice.

"We've just put another public holiday in the mix and employees aren't forced to work. It's in the legislation that businesses can choose to open or not, so I think that we've got to a stage where we really need that choice."

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford agrees.

"The reality is the best people to make the decision about whether they want to work or their stores should open are the managers and employees concerned - not the Government or councils," he told Newshub.

"It's just not appropriate in the 21st century for the Government to be putting blanket rules in place to ban trading on particular days."

Retail NZ CEO Greg Harford says it's "a nonsense" that there should be a patchwork of different trading rules across the country.
Retail NZ CEO Greg Harford says it's "a nonsense" that there should be a patchwork of different trading rules across the country. Photo credit: AM / Getty

A major issue, Harford says, is the fundamental misunderstanding by many that Easter Sunday is a public holiday.

"It's absolutely right that people need to have holidays. Retail workers get a minimum of four weeks' annual leave, and there are now 12 public holidays a year that are recognised in retail," he said.

"But someone who doesn't work on Easter Sunday doesn't normally get paid because it's not a public holiday. That will be good for some people who want to take a break, but won't be good for others who would prefer to work."

Baillie and Harford agree now is the time for Easter trading rules to be taken out of councils' hands and be uniform at the national level.

"We've got 67 local authorities. It's just a nonsense to suggest that there should be 67 different sets of rules potentially applying around the country - it creates confusion for both businesses and customers," Harford said.

"We are a small country. It makes sense for us to be consistent nationally on significant issues such as shop trading as it does on other things."

AM co-host Ryan Bridge has himself weighed in on the laws in the lead-up to Easter, starting a petition for the Government to "turn a blind eye" to trading rules as New Zealand welcomes Australian tourists into the country for the first time since the trans-Tasman bubble.

Bridge said he started the change.org petition, now signed by more than 1600 people, because Kiwi hospitality businesses need as much help as they can get after the economic damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I just think what the Government needs to do is give us a wink or a nudge or a gentlemen's agreement and just say 'You know what? This weekend we are not going to enforce our Easter weekend trading rules'."

Baillie says Bridge's petition is as good a sign as any that change is in the air.

"When you've got TV presenters starting petitions to relax the trading rules this year, I think they've come to a time and a period where it's time to really revisit them - and we believe this is the best way to go."