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Easter trading bill divides parliament

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 26/08/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

A pragmatic solution to Easter Sunday trading or a flawed decision that's going to lead to chaos?

That depends whether you agree with the government or the opposition.

The debate in parliament over whether councils should decide whether shops in their area can open on Easter Sunday has been heated, divisive and occasionally nasty.

Councils were on Thursday given that authority by a vote of 62 to 59 on a government bill.

National, ACT, United Future and one of the Maori Party's two MPs supported it.

Labour, the Greens, NZ First and the other Maori Party MP opposed it.

Easter trading laws have been controversial for decades, and three attempts to change them through members' bills failed.

The government took it on, but it's been pilloried by its opponents.

Labour's main gripe is that it should have had the courage to implement a nationwide law change instead of leaving it to councils.

The word "gutless" was used during the third reading debate, and an MP was thrown out for saying it.

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse was in charge of the legislation, here's his take on it: "It is a pragmatic and well-balanced bill which provides choice for local communities on whether or not to allow shop trading on Easter Sunday while also improving protections to all shop employees."

Opposition parties wouldn't have a bar of it.

"This is madness, it's fundamentally flawed. We could end up with different sets of rules all around the country," said Labour's Iain Lees-Galloway.

The government's point is that we already have different sets of rules in different places and for different types of shops, and councils are being given the chance to clear that up.

Some opposition MPs raised religious argument, others said allowing shops to open on Easter Sunday was yet another vicious attack on workers' rights.

But the most trenchant assault was their claim that National MPs were ordered by their party whips to vote for the bill, regardless of the fact that it was a conscience issue.

Conscience voting, which means MPs are free to follow their consciences on religious or moral issues, was allowed.

But although MPs trooped through the lobbies to record their individual votes, they were exercising those votes in a collective way.

With the exception of the Maori Party, the others took positions on the bill.

Labour claimed some National MPs had been ordered to vote against their consciences, which was vigorously denied.

The way it happened, National MPs said, was that caucus discussed the bill and every MP decided it was good legislation.

No way, said Labour, citing the history of previous Easter trading bills which some National MPs had opposed.

Labour just wouldn't accept that a consensus was possible without National's whips being involved.

National's Simon O'Connor had a point to make about that.

How could Labour criticise National when all its own MPs opposed the bill, he asked.

How was it that Labour, the Greens and NZ First MPs had identical attitudes, if it was to be believed that they were all exercising conscience votes?

There was much opposition hand-wringing over the plight of workers.

The bill, now the law, states that no employee can be forced to work on Easter Sunday and if they don't want to, they don't have to explain why.

They will be able to take a personal grievance if they are "treated adversely".

Opposition MPs said that was garbage, because workers who refused would risk damaging their relationship with managers who could, and probably would, make their lives a misery.

Many were part-time workers who depended on being given shifts, MPs said, and if they refused to work on Easter Sunday they would find those shifts quietly drying up.

The next fascinating chapter in this saga will be what councils decide to do, if anything, before next Easter.

Governments - and not just the current one - are reluctant to deal with polarising issues that are sure to upset sections of the population whichever way a decision goes.

Votes are lost that way, and the unenviable task has now been left to councils and their elected members.

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