I know what people think about Western Australia. Or what they don’t think about it. For example: you know how, in a TV series, when they want to get rid of a character without killing her or having her die, they send her to Australia? In Australian TV shows, when that happens, the character comes to live in Perth. And sure, it’s one of the most isolated cities in the world, and considering it takes up about a third of the country but only contains about ten percent of the population, you can imagine how bustling and chaotic it is.
So it figures that other cities and states look at Perth and Western Australia, and think we’re backward, and one of the areas in which we lagged behind is the regulation of retail trading hours. We used to have very strict regulations here in WA. No Sunday trading, and the only late night shopping night was Thursday night. The exception was for small businesses–the local corner store, or ‘deli’ as it’s often known here, and small independent supermarkets. The logic behind this was that if the retail industry were deregulated, then it would hurt small business. Around 18 years ago, we had our first Sunday trading day in the city centre. It was intended to bring some life back into the city, especially on the weekend, where it tended to be a bit of a dead zone. And it proved to be quite popular. People enjoyed the opportunity to do some shopping while casually walking around. For most shops, it wasn’t the busiest day of the week, but it warranted opening the doors and paying a couple of staff.
Then about ten years ago, there was a referendum to decide if we should change the regulation across the board, and allow every shop to open on Sundays, if they so desired. The response was a resounding ‘No’* and so the trading hours stayed the same. Western Australia remained the backwater it had always been.
Until last year, when–in contradiction to the referendum result, but I’m not bitter–Sunday trading was allowed for all shops whose owners wished to open. And you know, sometimes that is handy. I’ve occasionally made a quick run to the shops on a Sunday afternoon to pick up something I needed, and because the bigger supermarkets are open, there is a wider choice, and it’s cheaper. But leave aside the issue of big business vs small business, I really wonder if Sunday trading is doing us any good. Leave aside the convenience, and I wonder: do we really need the shops to be open every day? If I were to work six days a week, I can’t imagine I’d want to go shopping on my only non-work day. I’d seriously consider getting my shopping delivered, instead, and if I were working six days a week, I’d probably be able to wear the $5 delivery charge to do just that.
If you look back a few decades, Sunday was considered to be the day of rest–and granted, it was deemed a day of rest for religious reasons. But even those people who weren’t religious used to take it easy on Sundays. It was a day for sleeping in, and visiting family, and playing sport. Working on Sundays was an aberration. It was for overtime or stocktake. It certainly wasn’t the norm. Even on the farm, my own parents and those of my friends might check on the sheep, or fix something on the tractor, but they wouldn’t make a point of working (again, unless it were a really busy time of year).
Is this idea that we need to buy things all the time good for us? Is the idea that everyday is potentially a workday, a good one?
It’s probably clear by now that I’m a sceptic when it comes to religious belief. Regardless of whether I go shopping on Sundays, I certainly wouldn’t be spending any time in church. But perhaps there is something to be learnt from the ‘rules’ religious organisations impose. Thinking of this brought to mind a conversation I had a while back with a friend of mine. He was talking about how tribal elders used to lecture him and his friends when they were growing up. They would be told that they could only hunt some animals at certain times of the year, and not at others. ‘They told us that the spirits would punish us,’ he said, ‘but after a while, we kind of worked out that it was just so we didn’t run out of food.’
Religions have had millennia to develop myths and stories to explain how the world works, and how we should behave in it. Some of that is purely survival, such as the rules the elders laid out for young Indigenous hunters. Other rules are for social balance (not working Sundays means everyone gets at least one day off). Of course, these rules can be used to control populations, to incite fear, to demonise outsiders… but all those are good reasons to have a secular society. My point would be, what are the good parts we could take from religion, to make our society a better one? What are the things we can borrow to ensure that we’re living lives that are good for us?
We seem to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable–and that’s a good thing–but we shouldn’t push so far that we forget what we need to survive in this world. I wonder sometimes about how we seem to ‘break’ social rules with such scant regard for the impact. I know, it seems like nothing to open the stores every day of the week. But where did our day of rest go? It’s not as if I want a strict social structure in place which dictates exactly what I can and can’t do, with disastrous consequences, should I choose not to obey. We should have the choice, but I wonder whether we’re perhaps not that good at making the right choice for ourselves. We have laws in place which punish us for driving too fast, or for hurting others, or for spreading malicious rumours, or for destroying the environment. Were we so able to self-regulate our behaviour, such laws wouldn’t be needed. It is as well that we have borrowed from the moral structures built up over time, but borrowing is not enough. We have to consciously evolve: ask if this is the best path for our society? If progress should perhaps be measured by something other than simply consumption and exceeding budgets?
It’s true that sometimes we need saving from ourselves, and that includes being told that we need to have a day off now and then. I would argue that Sunday’s as good a day as any to take time out, relax, go for a walk, play football, rather than go shopping (or have to go to work so that others can do just that). My guess is, I’m shouting into the wind on this point, but perhaps I’m not. I don’t expect that Sunday trading will suddenly stop, but on the few occasions I’ve had to visit a store on a Sunday, I can’t help noticing that it’s hardly a busy day for any of the stores. Maybe people take their day of rest more seriously than I give them credit for.
*This is common. Overwhelmingly, Australians vote ‘No’ in referenda. The most famous ‘Yes’ was to allow Indigenous Australians to be counted as part of the population and for the government to enact laws for them. It was passed with over 90% of the vote, which I think is awesome. Of course, it was passed in 1967, which means that up until that time, an entire people was relegated to the status of ‘flora and fauna’ in terms of census data… which I think is pretty shameful.