In the mid 80s, when Kmart Burwood first tried opening all Friday night the week before Christmas, many thought they would only be entertaining drunks and insomniacs. The roll-up astonished everyone. There was traffic chaos for miles around the store and they were calling staff at home at 2am, offering them big money and begging to come back to work.

The Christmas week overnight marathon happens in every centre now. And when the manager of my local supermarket tells me that the biggest trading period most weeks is between 4pm to 8pm on Sunday, it’s difficult to recall the time when most state governments mandated that most shops closed from lunch time Saturday until Monday morning.

In the eastern Australia, 24/7 trading is now impossible to reverse.

Western Australia is the last bastion, overwhelmingly rejecting changes in a February 2005 referendum. However, on Boxing Day, huge crowds arrived at shops a little out of town in Mandurah and Rockingham while traders in Perth and Freo remained closed. Acting Premier Ripper dared suggest a rethink, but has been forced into a rapid and embarrassing backdown. He will no doubt describe it as “heeding community calls” but the reality is that he wilted in front of the blowtorch of fierce opposition from smaller retailers and their lobby groups.

Deregulation of trading hours always seems to be a painful process. The same arguments keep popping up, boiling down to the perceived welfare of small traders. Some say they will have no quality of life. In Sydney, some believe that deregulation allows the big shopping centres to squeeze the life out of small strips. Yet, the strength, quality and diversity of retail in the streets and lanes of Melbourne, and the ordinariness and homogeneity of shopping centres here, belies that.

So now WA will go through the crawl of tourist areas being allowed to trade, then shops employing fewer than 20 or so staff will be given a go. Eventually the loudest of the current objectors will see what they are missing and demand they be allowed in on the deal and sandgropers will join Nova Scotia as one of the last places in the western world to deregulate retail hours.

In the world’s most isolated city, they are not quick to take up an idea. When sandgropers talk about Qld, NSW and Vic they sort of spit out the words “over east”; delivering it as something between an insult and a curse. Maybe the 24/7 trading option is one of those evil eastern states concepts – a bit like that Australian federation thingy they’re still not too sure about.

Peter Fray

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