Ahead of the Australian Federal election, which has been scheduled for 21 May, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has outlined the five strategic priorities it would like to see addressed.

The election is occurring amidst intense global, social, and economic uncertainty, requiring resilience measures to be a focus from all parties, says ARA CEO, Paul Zahra.

“From the conflict in Europe to supply chain and chronic labour and skills pressures, rising inflation and unprecedented climate events such as the local flooding – the outcome of this year’s election will set the national agenda for decades to come. 

 “We’ve turned a corner on Covid, but it’s left an abundance of business challenges in its wake including our biggest ever disruptor – climate change. The business community needs evidence that all parties are approaching these challenges with a long-term, strategic mindset.”

The five strategic priorities that the ARA would like to see addressed by whichever party forms the government next month, include labour and skills shortages, small business recovery, supply chain resilience, sustainable businesses, and inclusive and equitable workplaces. 

  1. Labour and skills shortages

 The retail sector remains acutely impacted by a shortage of frontline workers that pre-dated the pandemic. Increasing the pool of candidates for retailers could be achieved by: 

 • Retaining recent changes allowing international student visa holders to work up to 40 hours per week, and allowing working holiday visa holders to spend more of their time in Australia working for the same employer. 

• Opening our borders temporarily to bring the qualified trades into the country that we will need to get disaster-affected communities and supply chains back on their feet sooner. 

• Providing meaningful employment opportunities for marginalised communities including older Australians, Indigenous people, people living with a disability, and recently arrived migrants. 

In addition to these labour shortages, retail growth is also being curtailed by a skills shortage exacerbated by border closures and the suspension of mutual obligations over the past two years. This shortage of skilled labour can be addressed by:  

• Expanding programs that provide access to vocational training and career pathways to job seekers outside the current cohort of young people aged 18-24.

• Expanding programs to include existing workers, so these employees can upskill and progress their career without having to find a new employer or move out of the sector.

• Expanding the Temporary Skills Shortage visa program to include hard-to-fill roles particularly in digital, strengthened by a pathway to permanent residency for roles where employers bring global talent into Australia to drive productivity and innovation.

  • Small business recovery

 The uneven impact of lockdowns and continued volatility in consumer spending has created significant challenges for several at-risk categories such as CBDs, travel retail, hair and beauty, and hospitality. The ARA is concerned about the viability of small businesses that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and natural disasters. Retail resilience could be supported by: 

• Extending the SME Recovery Loan Scheme to help smaller retailers absorb higher costs, minimise cashflow impacts of higher inventory levels and amortise the repayment of debts to the Australian Tax Office and landlords over a longer timeframe.

• Building on the collaboration between government and industry to help address short-term supply chain challenges and minimise the impact of higher supply chain costs driving inflation.

• Accelerating digital transformation to address the digital gap between large and small businesses, provide equal access across the digital economy and protect our sector from cyber security risks. 

  • Supply chain resilience

The challenges impacting the retail supply chain are predicted to prevail for another 12-18 months. The ARA welcomes collaboration between government and industry in addressing some of these challenges, however we believe supply chain resilience can be enhanced by: 

• Continuing to address land-side bottlenecks and reduce red tape at Australia’s ports.

• Expanding support to increase local manufacturing capability where vulnerabilities exist along critical supply chains like food and healthcare.

• Increasing supply chain traceability and transparency to manage risks, address key societal challenges for our sector like modern slavery and incentivise innovation along the supply chain. 

  • Sustainable businesses

Stepping up efforts to establish a more sustainable sector is critical to retail success. The ARA has launched its Net-zero Roadmap for the Australian retail sector and sees a number of opportunities to accelerate the transition to the low-carbon, circular economy of the future by: 

• Accelerating the transition to net-zero emissions by incentivising investment in the adoption of proven technologies that reduce costs, consumption, and emissions.

• Building capability of our sector by increasing awareness and providing educational resources to accelerate the transition to net-zero, particularly for small to medium size business. 

• Expanding the Recycling Modernisation Fund to improve the efficiency of collecting and segregating post-consumer waste; develop new markets for recycled content and circular feedstocks; and make it easier for retailers and consumers to connect with circular solutions. 

  • Inclusive and equitable workplaces 

Diversity, equality and inclusion is a core priority for retailers, a sector that employs one in 10 Australians. 

The ARA’s key focus is on gender equality, where it is advocating for:

• More cost-effective access to childcare for working families.

• Meaningful and flexible return-to-work options for parents returning to the workforce.

• Improved financial independence of women through their working life and in retirement. 

Representing many of the largest employers in the country, the ARA and its retail members has outlined the sectors’ priorities in its Position Statement for Gender Equality, in-line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Zahra said while Australia’s economy is tracking well with low unemployment and strengthening retail sales, deep concerns remain around our longer-term social and economic resilience. 

“Businesses are dealing with some unprecedented challenges. Costs are increasing due to inflationary pressures, while staff shortages and supply chain delays are continuing to bite. Business disruption remains an ongoing concern for companies large and small with conflict abroad creating a ripple of cost pressures for retailers and their customers,” Zahra said.

“We will continue to deal with these issues for months, if not years, and it is important our political leaders are focused on the long-term challenges that threaten our economic prosperity, as much as the short-term constraints. 

“Small businesses feel these impacts more given they do not have the same level of resources or cash reserves to cope with the uncertain economic environment. Whilst retail overall is performing well, recovery remains elusive for some including CBD retailers, travel retail, hair and beauty, hospitality and small businesses who require a level of ongoing targeted support.

“You cannot have an economic recovery without a retail recovery and the ARA’s five strategic priorities require attention from both major parties as part of their election platforms. 

“Regardless of which party forms government next month, we’ll continue to advocate for the interests of our retail members on the issues that are important to them.”