Monday, April 17, 2017

Ban both bans

One of the quirkiest things a new arrival to New Zealand finds are trading bans, the three and a half days on which it’s illegal for most businesses, like stores, to open. But there was such a maze of bizarre, confusing, and nonsensical exceptions and special cases that many people—including New Zealand born—often had trouble remembering what was open when and where. Yesterday, that changed—for some.

For many years, there were three and half days with trading bans: Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Anzac Day morning. MPs in successive Parliaments have introduced Members’ Bills to repeal the trading bans for Easter weekend, at least. None of them ever went anywhere.

Then last year, the current government announced that it was going to legislate to allow local councils to decide for themselves whether they would allow trading on Easter Sunday only. 25 mostly rural councils decided to allow Easter Sunday trading, but all the cities have not. This is nuts.

There are many critics—including me—who said at the time of the announcement that the move was typical of this National Party government, kicking hard decisions down the road for some future government to deal with. I still think that’s true, but I’d also add it’s also typical of National’s less than courageous style of making decisions, basically trying things to see what it can get away with. So, in this case, if there’s no armed insurrection because some local councils allowed trading on Easter Sunday (and there hasn’t been), then they may end up allowing councils to decide on Good Friday, too—or maybe on all trading bans, as big retailing corporations have long wanted.

Whatever happens, this half-baked solution has got to change.

Many argue that there should be a trading ban on Christmas Day because it’s traditionally a day for families, and it definitely is that. Moreover, the day is now mainly secular, so the religious aspects, while important to the religious, don’t really change the mostly secular nature of the day. So, I agree that the trading ban on Christmas Day makes sense.

Easter is somewhat similar to Christmas, really, with the ever-present pagan fertility symbols of eggs and rabbits, neither of which have anything to do with the Christian story, having pretty much replaced the religious story for most New Zealanders. That’s not the case for Good Friday, however, which has no secular meaning, apart, maybe, as a day to travel to wherever people are going for their long Easter holiday weekend. Actually, the fact that so many people travel on Good Friday is reason alone to allow trading on the day.

It seems utterly bizarre to me that National preserved the trading ban on Good Friday—a day with actual religious meaning particular to only one of New Zealand’s many religions (Christianity), while not having any particular meaning to the majority of New Zealanders who are not Christian, for whatever reason. Even so, I’m certain that National wasn’t pandering to the religious minority; instead, it was merely their timidity about acting decisively on such issues, the effect of which was to inconvenience the majority of New Zealanders for no justifiable reason.

This leaves Anzac Day morning, and I think that trading ban should remain. The day is the one true day of national unity, a day that is sacred to the country in a mostly secular way, but with religious aspects, too. Mostly, the whole point of it is to remember the sacrifice of those who fought to defend New Zealand, and I personally think that’s a worthy goal, and a good reason to keep shops closed. After all, it’s only half a day.

It’s also important to note that trading bans are entirely separate from public holidays: Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Anzac Day morning are all public holidays, and no one—including me—is suggesting that should be changed. However the trading bans on Easter Weekend are no longer justified at all in modern New Zealand, even if the ones on Christmas Day and Anzac Day morning may be.

So, I think that the councils that acted to allow trading on Easter Sunday did the right thing, and I hope the rest of the country’s local councils do the same. I also hope that whatever government is elected later this year legislates to include Good Friday. That trading ban makes no sense whatsoever.

Still, no matter who forms the next government, we won’t have any change in time for Easter next year, I don’t think, and probably not the year after. But sooner or later the government should deal with this issue once and for all. It’s definitely overdue.

Related: Liam Dann, writing in the New Zealand Herald, said, "Attempts to loosen outdated Easter trading laws have degenerated into a farce worthy of sketches by Monty Python or the late, great John Clarke." He's absolutely right.

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