The debate about HDPE (high density polyethylene) plastic bags, covered in Crikey over the last few days, is one that should have occurred before the proposed introduction of bag levies, rather than as a postscript. However, when the debate was on, the retailers were squabbling with each other instead of forming a united front.

Last June, governments seemed happy with the progress toward reduced bag usage under a voluntary code. Many were surprised in July when the Victorian government unilaterally announced a bag levy, in the face of an Environment Australia report recommending no legislative changes and a debate that, as some Crikey content demonstrates, is far from over.

A levy on plastic bag use is a price retailers might pay for failed industry politics.

As lobbyists, retailers have recently been underpowered, resulting in early losses in the PR and political battles over bags.

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The difficulty for any association representing retailers is that the interests of merchants with sales higher than $500m are often very different from those with sales of $50m or the thousands of retailers with sales of less than $5m.

For many years the recognised peak body was the Australian Retailers Association. ARA has been through a troubled period. Coles, Woolworths and several other majors resigned their membership or stopped paying fees. About two years ago ARA almost imploded and for a time ceased being an effective national body.

So now you also hear of The Australian National Retailers’ Association (ANRA) and the National Retail Association (NRA) and specific trade groups such as NARGA which represents grocers. Confused? To outsiders it sounds like the myriad bodies claiming to regulate world boxing titles.

NRA was once known as the Queensland Retail Traders and Shopkeepers Association. It has national ambitions, having snagged Harvey Norman and a couple of the Melbourne based national jeans retailers. NRA is pushing south. Think Joh for PM.

ANRA (no website) is a new Coles driven lobby group, based in Canberra. ANRA aims for a membership of about 20 of the biggest retailers. It is understood the federal government may rebuff the body; preferring to deal with something more broadly representative.

ARA was, and might still be, the closest thing to a national body. It is being reinvented, with new leadership headed by former VECCI Executive Director David Edwards. Yesterday a meeting of members voted for to establish a new national ARA Council and management structure and to dissolve State divisions. Some prodigal retailers are returning.

Retailing is huge, employing almost 15% of the workforce. Unless retailers learn from this lobbying failure, and recognise the value of a broadly representative, strong and effective voice, there will be further pain.