opinion Right now the internet is ass-ploding with what might be politely called “dissent” regarding the claims being made by major Australian retailers that there is an uneven playing field in terms of selling goods online.
In short, a bunch of middle-class Australians with disposable income to spend on expensive consumer electronics gadgets and books have entered into full whinge mode at the prospect that they might have to pay an extra 10 percent GST to import cheap goods from international web sites like Amazon.
It’s less “dissent’ than it is middle Australia dissing Gerry Harvey for being rich enough to hire ad agencies to point out how many fat stacks he has and how they should contribute more margin to his retirement fund courtesy of his “Hardly Normal” prices.
Now the first thing that strikes me about the fiery debate going on right now is how completely irrelevant it is, given how obscenely rich and fortunate Australians in general already are. Over the Christmas period, my personal household gained no less than three new electrical appliances — a dishwasher, a crockpot and a new toastie maker. And none of those broke the bank in the slightest, despite the fact that the cost we paid to buy them probably paid the wages of dozens of Indian or Chinese workers for months, and that we are currently getting a startup off the ground.
(Wait, I still have a HECS debt — but that doesn’t really count, does it?)
Let’s get some perspective, Australia. Most of the people furiously complaining about the retailers’ GST crusade are the sort who (just like me) have enough time and money to sit on the internet all day at work or home browsing online sites for random bargains and complaining about just these sorts of issues. To be honest, we wouldn’t notice an extra 10 percent surcharge on our international purchases if it jumped up and bit us in the face.
And frankly, given the amount of money I’ve been saving on books over the past decade by buying secondhand copies of fantasy epics for 58c from Amazon, perhaps it’s about time I stated paying “full price”. Would that make it 58c + 5.8c? Crazy. How would I live with that?
But more importantly, what appears to have been lost in this GST debate so far, is that local business bosses like Gerry Harvey have a clear and certain point when they claim that it’s “a shocker” that international retailers selling online to Australians get “manna from heaven” in the form of GST exemptions for goods worth less than $1,000.
As Harvey points out, retailers like Harvey Norman are selling the same consumer electronics products as major sites like Amazon. Book companies like Borders and Angus & Robertson are selling the same books as UK discounting giant The Book Depository.
It’s the same product, sold to the same customer. But if it’s sold by an “Australian” company in “Australia” — whatever that means in terms of the Australian Taxation Office’s complex regulations (and they are complex, trust me — I’m a small business owner) — that Australian company must charge the customer 10 percent GST and then pass it on to the ATO.
That would appear to be the definition of what Mr Gerry Harvey has called “an uneven playing field”. Some retailers are forced to charge customers an extra 10 percent. Some are not. So which way do you think customers will jump, all else being equal?
Follow me so far? If not, feel free to hop off this rant-train at this point and head down to the comments field, where no doubt you will accuse me of idiocy and not understanding one of the following three items:
- The intricacies of Australia’s tax situation (you’re right, I don’t. But you don’t either.)
- The complexity of the online medium (you’re right, it’s incredibly complex — and as we established in point A, I am stupid)
- The fact that Delimiter takes advertising from Australian technology companies and therefore everything we write must somehow be “bias” in nature (do you like my hat? It’s made of money!! Oh, wait. We need to eat too; sadly, journalists cannot survive on PR agency Christmas hampers alone)
For the sensible readers, this is the portion of the rant where I consider both sides.
Frankly, the simple fact of this uneven playing field is being lost due to the idiocy of Australia’s traditional retailers in linking their ability to offer online services to the GST shenanigans.
A polite way of describing the websites of retailers like Harvey Norman for the past decade might be “undeveloped”. A less polite way might be that they have traditionally been excremental piles of donkey turd which actively aim to prevent you from buying goods online, so that they can maintain their odious monopolies on selling goods to Australians at hilariously overinflated prices.
For retailers like ‘Hardly Normal’, David Jones, Angus & Robertson and even Target to claim that they agree that “online retailing is a wonderful convenience” which is here to stay is pathetically disengenuous. For a decade now most major Australian retailers have desperately fought against the encroachment of the internet on their overweight storefronts populated with pimply, hungover, minimum wage teenage check-out clerks, who desperately leer at every girl who walks by. I should know — a decade ago I was one of them at Big W.
And why not?
The fact that the these megaliths of corporate ineptness have just now realised, ten years after the GST was introduced, that it might have the potential to create an uneven playing ground online is a testament to how slow-moving they truly are.
It also might, just might, be a testament to the fact that that in 2010, 15 years after eBay was founded (and, arguably, 5 years after eBay jumped the shark), globalised online retailing is finally starting to hit their bottom line in a meaningful way.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s revert to our original article so that the trolls can have a reason to slam us in the comments.
The fact that Australia’s traditional retailers have not adapted well to the internet does not mean that an uneven playing field does not exist. Their arrogance and hubris notwithstanding, it remains true that the uneven playing field described by Gerry Harvey is a reality — and it does not only apply to major retailers.
It also applies to innovative pure-play online Australian companies like AusPCMarket, RedBubble, Kogan Technologies and more. These aren’t the companies complaining in public to the Federal Government about the issue — in fact, Ruslan Kogan is taking Harvey to town on the issue, as is his habit — but an uneven playing field necessarily affects them as well.
So what should be done about all this?
To be honest, it’s hard to say, although I agree with Electronic Frontiers Australia that more thought is needed on this issue. And by “thought”, I don’t mean Gerry Harvey debating Bill Shorten on 2UE, although I “think” that would be a fascinating exercise in man love between a pot and a kettle, neither of which realise that they’re on the same unholy side.
I mean, clearly, it would be next to impossible for the ATO to force multinational retailers to send it 10 percent every time an Australian ordered a product online. But also, it doesn’t seem reasonable to dump the GST for Australian retailers selling online. I suspect the problem here is that the GST was created for an economy fundamentally based on bricks and mortar — and does not easily suit the internet age.
But in the meantime, let’s not simply tell Gerry Harvey to STFU because he has a dud website and is a rich old fat cat billionaire having a whinge in public. He didn’t get to where he is by being ignorant — unlike most of his customers.