The Queensland Industrial Relations Commission is currently considering an application from the National Retail Association, which represents big retailers such as Coles and Woolworths, for standardised trading hours across South East Queensland, which would extend opening hours, e.g. up to 9pm on Saturdays, in many locations (see this ABC news report). The first day of the hearing considered a report into the economic benefits of retail trading hours deregulation. The report was prepared in early 2014 by Professor Henry Ergas, Dr Alex Robson (now PM Turnbull’s senior economic adviser) and Joe Branigan, a former Treasury colleague and old friend of mine, who had to appear before the QIRC and defend the report yesterday. The report includes an estimate that up to 2,000 extra jobs could be created if there were full deregulation of retail trading hours across the State.
The methodology and data sources supporting the economic report were subject to an intense line of questioning from the counsel representing the independent grocers (e.g. IGAs) who are opposing the NRA’s applications. Despite the intense pressure, Joe was able to offer some moments of brilliance, such as when he referred to former Treasury Secretary Ted Evans’s observation that “in one sense, we can choose the level of unemployment which we are willing to bear” (see my 2014 post Unemployment rate is partly a policy choice). That is, the choices we make regarding economic and social regulations, such as on retail trading hours, can affect the level of unemployment. I have previously argued that removing restrictive regulations such as those on retail trading hours would boost employment, particularly among young people.
It would be good for the Queensland economy if the NRA case were successful. Unfortunately, in the hour-and-a-half I attended the hearing yesterday, I received the impression that the NRA team was a little under-prepared for the case. It became apparent that the NRA had not fully briefed Joe on the exact nature of its application, and this meant Joe had to concede to the counsel for independent grocers that he was unaware the definition of SEQ relevant to retail trading hours is significantly different from the definition of SEQ used by the Queensland Government and the ABS for economic statistics. This seems like a pretty important fact that the NRA should have picked up and briefed Joe on, given the NRA is relying on Joe to provide credible expert evidence to advance its case. Let us hope the NRA improves its game over the remaining days of the hearing.