Special Report by Patrick Avenell

A seemingly innocuous media release this week has highlighted the petty and often bitter competition between two organisations paid to represent the interests of both major retail chains and Mum and Dad stores.

The furore between the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) and the National Retail Association (NRA) erupted on Monday (20 June 2011), when this website reported that Fair Work Australia (FWA) had granted an application to amend the minimum shift times for schoolchildren working in retail outlets.

That story was based on both the FWA’s decision and a media release sent from ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman’s office. That release from the ARA carried quotes from Zimmerman “rejoicing” at this outcome whilst also complaining that it was “a pity [the] decision wasn’t made any earlier”.

When these comments were read by Gary Black, executive director of the NRA, his blood boiled. Black immediately fired off an email to this journalist, saying that as a “matter of urgency” we publish a correction to the story, so that the credit for this decision went to his organisation.

This may seem petty, but lobby groups exist to achieve outcomes for their members, with these associations often charging thousands of dollars to represent companies. In the retail industry, the rivalry is intensified, because there are three leading organisations: the ARA, the NRA and the Australian National Retail Association (ANRA).

History is also a contributor to this bitterness. The ARA was first hamstrung when Coles and Woolworths — Australia’s two most prominent retail chains — withdrew their membership to join the newly formed ANRA group. The NRA itself began as the Queensland arm of the ARA, before becoming an independent association.

So bitter is the NRA’s hostility towards the ARA, Black describes them as “an organisation now in decline”. His rival at the ARA disputes this, saying that although it has begun outsourcing employment relations to the FCB Group and had some reductions in staff a few years ago, the ARA has begun growing again over the last 18 months.

With so much lingering hostility, the mere appearance of an ARA media release on the subject of this favourable FWA decision was infuriating to Black. He claims the NRA lead the retail cavalry to achieve these significant changes to the General Retail Industry Award, with the ARA not just a follower, but an active saboteur.

“The facts are that the ARA did all they could to sabotage this application,” wrote Black in his first email to Current.com.au.

Black justifies this extraordinary claim by pointing out the following timeline of events: In July 2010, the NRA and ARA (along with Master Grocers Australia) applied for and lost an application amend the Award, so that all casual shift times minimums would be reduced from three  hours to two hours.

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This decision was then appealed in October 2010. This appeal had been lodged by the NRA and MGA, but not by the ARA. The FWA decision again when against the retail lobbyists, with the decision including this withering assessment of the application:

“It is hard to imagine a weaker evidentiary case for a general reduction in the minimum period of casual engagement. That deficiency is made more glaring by the applicants’ failure to address the substantial evidentiary case put against it by the SDA through its witnesses.”

The next step was another appeal, which was scheduled to be heard in late 2010. A change was made to the applicants’ request: instead of all casual minimums being reduced to two hours, it would only be schoolchildren and it would be for 1.5 hours. According to transcripts, the ARA appears to have championed this particular amendment.

It is at this point that the NRA’s Gary Black claims the ARA almost sabotaged the process and “embarrassed” the retail industry as a whole.

After losing the October 2010 appeal, the NRA immediately lodged its follow-up appeal. The ARA also lodged an appeal at this time, but then withdrew its appeal, calling for a delay in the case. Russell Zimmerman from the ARA totally refutes Black’s claims of sabotage and embarrassment.

“That is absolutely incorrect,” he said. “We did ask for a delay in the case; the reason we asked is because we were looking to get substantial evidence to put before [the FWA] — that evidence we could not gain sufficient to what we believed would be required by FWA — and that is when we withdrew.”

When this strategic review explanation was put to Black, he laughed derisively, saying it was “hypocritical” of Zimmerman to “claim the [credit] for the decision given their manoeuvring”. He also referenced the time lost in the process due to the ARA’s application being lodged then withdrawn, which he contrasted to Zimmerman’s complaints of delays in the process.

“Having caused this substantial delay in proceedings, they [the ARA] then just withdrew, and that was a matter of some embarrassment to us, as it sent a message to the tribunal that this was not an important matter,” Black said.

In Zimmerman’s defence, the ARA had just lost two cases based on very similar evidence. His justification for the delay — that a third loss without more evidence was inevitable — is supported by the retail group’s arch rival in this saga: the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).

Having fought and won two cases for his union members, SDA national secretary Joe de Bruyn said he couldn’t understand how the SDA lost at the third attempt. His hard-done by feelings are supported not just by the original assessment of the weak evidence, but also the limited attack produced by the retailers at the third attempt. Not only was the NRA the only listed applicant, Gary Black concedes that he produced no new evidence at this hearing.

“What do I think of the two organisations (the NRA and ARA)? They’re both incompetent when it comes to running industrial cases. They’ve had a win in this latest case, but it comes against all the weight of evidence that was against them because their case was again hopeless,” said an obviously aggrieved de Bruyn.

To settle the matter of credit for this win, we asked de Bruyn to identify who he believed was the main instigator of this action.

“The NRA has undoubtedly been the spear-thrower in this whole minimum start campaign…and I think that the others have been followers, not leaders,” he responded.

Although the ARA and the NRA differ on this, there is one thing both agree on: this confusion is not best serving their paid-up members.

“I would have to agree that quite often there is confusion and there are a number of industry bodies out there,” said Zimmerman.

“I think that’s right, there is a disfunctionality at the representative level and it does mean that the retailers are not as well served as they could be,” replied Black when this theory was put to him.

So what do the members think of this “disfunctionality”? For JB Hi-Fi CEO Terry Smart, ignorance is bliss. JB is a member of both the NRA and the ARA, with the retail giant only reporting positive experiences.

“They provide benefits to the retailers, there’s no question about that — lobbying the Government on major issues, major concerns that they have and the interests of retailers,” Smart said. “They’re great for providing timely updates on legislative changes. There’s no doubt they provide a good service.”

When asked if membership provided value for money, Smart gave a reply that the ARA and NRA would find less enthusiastic.

“I’d have to go back and look at how much our membership fees are.”