Refer the matter to an “Online Retail Forum”?
Yes, Minister.


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 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


  1. ‘Doyenne’ is a woman; ‘doyen’ is the masculine form. Are you calling Gerry a girl?

          • Government isn’t the only place where they drag their heels in software upgrades. I work in finance on a temporary contract. Annoys me to no end, but even if I was in IT where I work, I would doubt I would be able get them to upgrade.

          • I do work in IT and I would not be caught dead working in that environment. I am sure I don’t have to explain my reasoning here.

          • No you do not need to. However, you must understand, some of us don’t have the luxury of chosing our jobs based upon weither or not they keep their software reasonably up to date.

            I would give almost anything for the company to issue me a machine running Windows 7 with local admin privledges, but unfortunately they aren’t going to do that. So I just have to deal.

            This is also getting off topic. I only mentioned the bug for Renai to see if there was anything he could do, or if it was just me that was affected. I did not expect to have you start questioning my competence.

  2. Geez – I remember going to e-commerce seminars in the late 1990s. No wonder there has been a mass exodus of Australian IT workers leaving the country. I am seriously thinking of following suit.

  3. Before Christmas, I wrote an oped in another place advising retailers to stop whining and innovate.
    The response was interesting: small retailers responded by saying they feel powerless. Caught between local giants and aggressive offshore players and with rent to pay and payroll to make, they could see no way out.
    I reckon more than a few of those who wrote to me would be interested in attending this forum.
    Not everyone is as tech-savvy as Delimiter readers.

    • “No way out” … hmmm. And yet Australian tech retailers like MSY and AusPCMarket have been operating online locally for what? More than a decade? In 2011, you can set up a shopfront online with little effort, knowledge about SEO techniques and online marketing is widely available, and retailers of any stripe, frankly … have no technical justification for not operating an online presence. If it doesn’t make sense in terms of a business model, that’s another matter, of course; and yet there is plenty of evidence (hello, Amazon and others) to suggest that it works just fine given the right approach, and there is ample room for competition.

    • I recommend that they see a psychologist.

      Back in late 1990s they where complaining that they could not find web designers/developers and as a result tried the do-it-yourself approach – most of the failed.

      Where was I? – I was staring at four walls – twiddling my thumbs and eating peanut butter out of a jar like many others.

  4. “Not everyone is as tech-savvy as Delimiter readers.”


    “Caught between local giants and aggressive offshore players and with rent to pay and payroll to make, they could see no way out.”

    This is sadly common with small retails. A lot of them don’t understand how to make money when you have the “big boys” taking all your sales and companies, like online retailers, that can undercut you because they have less overheads to pay.

    Mary Queen of Shops (if you watch it) goes into how this problem has been affecting the mindsets of UK high street shops and how to survice, I think the same advice applies here as well, and it comes down to quite simply: “Go Niche.” Select a small area you’re good at, maybe a little bit out there, and do that little area better than anyone else.

  5. There are very real and current issues that Conroy should be concentrating on to bring Australian Internet up to date with international standards. These are:

    1. Internet Governance and Net Neutrality
    2. Enforce full ISP public transparency on Network Management Policies so that Internet users can make informed decisions
    3. Prohibit the ISP uncompetitive practice of blocking of legitimate content, applications, services or non-harmful devices. eg P2P applications, MMORPGs and voice and video telephony services, especially when it competes.
    4. Prohibit the practice of unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer’s broadband service.
    5. Address the final draft of the “Information and communications technologies for development” (A/C.2/65/L.56) that was submitted to the United Nations General Assembly 22nd November 2010

  6. @renai these weren’t tech retailers. they were general retailers. Tech retailers have been tuned into e-tail for ages. Parity has given other specialists a jolt.
    As for the “no technical justification” argument, technology is a tiny fraction of getting into online retail. For the average small business with a staff under 5 and turnover under $2million, finding time and energy to do it is non-trivial. Those guys don’t have free cash to invest, or pay for advice.
    A government service like this one will be snaffled up by many who know they have a lot to learn but don’t have the resources to do the learning.

  7. @simon

    There are plenty of online services around that cater for multiple companies complete with credit card gateways. No development required and cheep as chips. Gone are the old days of custom development for sites like this – its like reinventing the wheel. Same goes for online forums, blogs and content management etc. They are all the same at the end of the day.

    • I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, because as usual here are the technologists saying “the tools are there, it’ll be easy.”
      You know what guys? It won’t. It’s never easy.
      Most small businesses don’t have automated inventory management software. So where will their online catalog come from? How will they update it and therefore provide good customer service if the web site says something is in stock but the last one went off the shelf an hour ago?Once you create the shop, who replies to emails? What do you do if a package goes astray? Who’ll be the one who does the daily run to the post office? Who’s going to do all that work? How will the retailer make payroll if they need extra people?
      Getting these things done – and done well – is absolutely necessary to turn an online shopfront into a success.
      No freaking way is it just about getting one’s hands on some free tools.
      Lots of Australian business will lap up this service that this story has so unfairly labelled an empty bureaucratic gesture.

      • Spot on Simon. The biggest thing is managing the web sales once you’ve made the sale. The company I work for is big enough that we have a website integrated with our POS/Inventory Management software so that’s not so bad but there is still the emails/phone calls(there can be a number of these back and forth before anything is sold), freight, returns etc to take care of.

        It’s not just as simple as saying we want to have an e-commerce solution and that’s the end of it, especially for non-tech oriented people. They don’t know who to trust or don’t feel they can afford a consultant to lead them in the right direction.

        It’s like a builder telling me that I should be able to build a house because all the materials/information is available.

        We need to remember that there is a reason we are the tech guys. It’s because for most people, the stuff that we think is easy is not. To most people it’s complicated, confusing or just plain scary.

  8. What I would like to see is a GST exemption for purchases under $1000 (or some threshold) applied to Australian small businesses. It would be beneficial in that it allows them to compete better with big business (who already get advantages from their volume purchasing power) and overseas online retailers and also increase the diversity of products.

    It’s a probably a fairly socialist idea but to be honest i’m fine with that. I look around and all i see is the same old chain stores selling the same limited range of product and personally I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Comments are closed.