opinion Yesterday afternoon, as I was preparing to leave the office and depart for the congenial, air-conditioned surroundings of the Royal Hotel in the Sydney suburb of Randwick, an important missive from the desk of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy arrived in my inbox.
“Verily,” it stated — well, not quite, but words to that effect — “We, the Government of Australia, have decided to fix this mess that is Australia’s e-commerce environment.”
In earnest working family prose, Conroy proceeded to outline how providing “an online information and sales channel” was “clearly” an important part of any discussion about “the future of Australian retail”. “Buying and selling online,” the good Minister continued, “can deliver benefits to Australian businesses in the form of greater efficiencies, broader customer base and increased revenues.”
But wait — there was more.
“Shopping online,” according to the redoubtable Conroy, “can also deliver benefits to consumers in the form of greater customer satisfaction, better product information and, in some instances, lower prices.”
Bugger me, I thought. You mean … if you buy things on the internet, you could get more information about products, have a better experience, and even save money? How did I not know about this before? Why didn’t someone tell me?
In order to better coordinate Australia’s response to this revelation, Conroy’s statement noted, the Federal Government — in which we trust — was planning to hold a special event, no less than an “Online Retail Forum”, which would “encourage and support Australian retailers to explore online business options”. Attending this scintillating event would be speakers from such notable companies as eBay, PayPal, Gray’s Online, Australia Post, Google, and even the national competition regulator.
Now, clearly this august ministerial communication comes in response to the recent rumblings about online GST from such honourable personalities as the doyenne of Australia’s retail sector, Gerry Harvey, and a number of other notables hailing from the same friendly capitalist region.
It does, however, also strongly remind me of the response of that famed servant of the people, Sir Humphrey Appleby, when expressing to the right honourable James Hacker that something absolutely must be done about some issue or another. Quoth the pragmatic Appleby:
“I recommend that we set up an interdepartmental committee with fairly broad terms of reference so that at the end of the day we’ll be in the position to think through the various implications and arrive at a decision based on long-term considerations rather than rush prematurely into precipitate and possibly ill-conceived action which might well have unforeseen repercussions.”
Now, what Hacker responded to Appleby at the time, and what Gerry Harvey and his cohort of outraged retail millionaires should take to mean by Conroy’s establishment of an “Online Retail Forum”, is that what the whole thing means is “no”.
No, the Goverment will not either start to charge international retailers GST when an Australian buys something from their overseas website. No, the Government will not exempt local retailers from having to charge GST when a customer buys something from them, despite the multinational competition. No, the Government doesn’t really care how much Harvey and co jump up and down and cry poor and unfair. No, no, no.
“You mean no,” Hacker replied to Appleby.
In short, the Federal Government does not plan to really do anything about Harvey and Co’s complaints about the lack of a level playing field when it comes to the online retail environment. The simple reason is that consumers don’t want it to, having become accustomed to cheap online imported goods over the past 17 years since Amazon.com was founded in the US.
In addition, Harvey Norman, David Jones, Myer, JB Hi-Fi and all of the other bricks and mortar retailers are still making far too many buckets of cash for the Government to care about the issue.
Holding an “Online Retail Forum” is a classic Government maneuver. It will cost virtually nothing, it’ll give everyone involved in the debate a chance to have their say and air their grievances, it’ll allow smaller, more innovative and more naive players to mistakenly believe they’re influencing national policy, and it’ll allow the Government to claim it’s doing something about a situation which nobody really cared about to start with, but in a way that doesn’t require it to actually do anything at all, thus neutralising the issue in the eyes of everybody, including the Opposition.
As a complete waste of time, as Sir Humphrey would no doubt say, Conroy’s Online Retail Forum will be a stunning success. I’m fairly sure that everyone’s answer to whether or not it should be held will arrive shortly: “Yes, Minister”.
Image credit: BBC