Tamworth and Nowra Grace Bros Store Closures



About this Item
SubjectsRetail Trading; Regional Development
SpeakersCampbell Mr David; Stoner Mr Andrew; Speaker; Brown Mr Matt; Piccoli Mr Adrian; Draper Mr Peter; Torbay Mr Richard; Martin Mr Gerard
BusinessBusiness of the House, URG MOT, MOT


    TAMWORTH AND NOWRA GRACE BROS STORE CLOSURES
Page: 557


    Urgent Motion

    Mr CAMPBELL (Keira—Minister for Regional Development, Minister for the Illawarra, and Minister for Small Business) [3.35 p.m.]: I move:

    That this House:

    (1) notes that Grace Bros will close its Tamworth and Nowra stores on 22 June this year;

    (2) calls on Coles Myer to reverse its decision;

    (3) expresses support for the workers and local businesses associated with these operations; and

    (4) urges Coles Myer to immediately express its total support for other country stores in New South Wales, guaranteeing they will not close other operations.

    The people of country New South Wales have once again been treated shabbily by yet another large insensitive corporation. Hard on the heels of callous indifference shown by the banks to regional communities comes the news that Grace Bros will close its Tamworth and Nowra stores. On 11 April this year the company announced that it would do away with these two stores so that it could upgrade five other stores, and refurbish others. Where are the upgrades taking place? With the exception of the Erina store, they are all planned for Sydney locations. This is a blow to regional economies that will soon feel the impact of the decision of this company, a decision that was announced in a gutless fashion in Melbourne, and not in Nowra or Tamworth. It is no wonder that the local Tamworth community has protested about this decision.

    For more than 40 years loyal customers have spent their hard-earned money in the Tamworth store. The Peel Street shop services an enormous catchment area. Generations of mums and dads from as far away as Lightning Ridge and Moree in the State's Far West have made the long trek to shop in Tamworth. From Sunday 22 June they will have to travel even further because the Grace Bros Tamworth store will no longer exist. The community will have a choice: travel to Newcastle for the same product range or head over the border to Toowoomba in Queensland. Unfortunately, not everyone in Tamworth can take that option. Where will the senior citizens of Tamworth and those who are least mobile shop? Does Coles Myer care about them?

    What will happen to the employees of the Tamworth store? Members of the House will be interested to know that 102 workers will lose their jobs when Coles Myer closes its Peel Street store. This decision will have an enormous impact on families in Tamworth. Without a doubt, this impact will flow on to other businesses as families tighten their belts or wait to visit Sydney for a splurge at Grace Bros. In all, 17 full-time jobs will be lost, and 85 part-time and casual workers will have to look elsewhere. I acknowledge that Coles Myer is working to place local Grace Bros employees in available positions in other company stores in the area.

    The Tamworth community fears that its regional centre will be seriously weakened when the store closes and that the country music capital of Australia will lose some of its appeal as a regional service centre. The Save My Store Grace Bros Action Group put it succinctly: The people of Tamworth do not want charity; they want equity and they want to be heard by this company. It is certainly time that the company stood up and confided its intentions in the Tamworth area. It should put an end to recent speculation about the possibility of opening a subsidiary Target store. I urge Coles Myer to let the Tamworth community know what it intends to do and to put an end to damaging speculation.

    On the South Coast, the local community and holidaymakers will no longer have a Grace Bros store. After more than 20 years of trading, the Nowra store will close on 22 June and up to 50 people will lose their jobs. As a result, five full-time employees, 30 part-time employees and 15 casual employees will be looking for other jobs. The company has said that it will attempt to place as many staff as possible with other Coles Myer operations, including Kmart, Target Country, LiquorLand and Coles outlets. The Nowra community fears that when the store closes people will have to travel to Warrawong, Wollongong, Miranda and Sydney to spend their money. Therefore, less money will flow through the Nowra economy. The Nowra store is one of the smallest in Australia, but that makes it no less important to its community. Plans are under way to change the face of Nowra's retail centre. The Shoalhaven City Council has received a development application to extend the existing Nowra Fair complex. The complex currently houses Kmart, Woolworths and specialty shops. The proposed extension will house 30 specialty shops, a new Big W and extra parking spaces.

    Coles Myer says that Grace Bros Tamworth and Nowra simply are not up to scratch and claims that they are too small to be sustainable in the future. After careful consideration of their size, age and the amount of money needed to upgrade those two stores, Coles Myer has pulled the plug on decades of customer loyalty. I am disappointed in the company's behaviour. I am disillusioned with the company because of its callous indifference to country New South Wales. The company's decision to close the Tamworth and Nowra stores came just months after it announced an 8.2 per cent rise in its net half-year profit, which was $213 million. Coles Myer is propping up its bottom line at the expense of loyal country customers in the New England and South Coast regions.

    I am angry that the company has made this decision hard on the heels of one of the most severe droughts this State has ever seen. How much more are country communities expected to take? The Carr Government does not condone that type of behaviour. The Government is working hard to support regional communities, and to encourage innovation, business development and initiative to create jobs in country New South Wales. Grace Bros's decision has the potential to destabilise entire regional communities. The people of Tamworth and Nowra deserve better treatment from Coles Myer. I urge the company to put an end to continuing speculation about the possibility of more regional stores closing.

    Mr Roberts: What about cutting payroll tax?

    Mr CAMPBELL: Throughout my speech there have been continuous chattering and inane interjections by the honourable member for Lane Cove about payroll tax. The honourable member is new to the House and clearly does not understand the importance of listening during question time. The Opposition asked the Premier a question about payroll tax during question time. The Premier well and truly demolished any credibility that the Opposition might have had in relation to payroll tax by pointing out that under the last Coalition Government payroll tax was 8 per cent in this State. That rate has been well and truly reduced under the administration of the Carr Labor Government. I make that point to illustrate the importance of members opposite listening during question time so they do not cause embarrassment. The honourable member for Lane Cove is causing himself embarrassment by demonstrating that he has not listened, and he is causing embarrassment to the Leader of the Opposition who, if my memory serves me correctly, asked the question which was so comprehensively answered by the Premier. The Premier's answer demonstrated clearly that the Opposition has not a feather to fly with in regard to payroll tax.

    Communities in Albury, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Orange, Dubbo, Wagga Wagga, Wollongong and Bathurst should not have to face continuing speculation about further closures of Grace Bros stores or other stores of the Coles Myer brand. The closure of stores in Tamworth and Nowra will have a significant impact. Many small shareholders of Coles Myer will find the company's decision abhorrent. I am a former small shareholder in Coles Myer and, as such, I find abhorrent the decision that has led to this debate and the motion before the House. I do not support the company's decision. Although I currently do not hold shares in the company, it would not make any difference if I did: I would make exactly the same contribution to this debate if I held shares in Coles Myer because I do not agree with the approach that has been adopted. In addition, I do not agree with the approach adopted time and again by big banks—a topic that has also been the subject of debate in this place.

    The last thing country communities need—communities such as Tamworth and Nowra, and potentially Albury, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Orange, Dubbo, Wagga Wagga, Wollongong and Bathurst—is another retail setback that will impact adversely on regional development, small businesses and destroy job creation opportunities. Cole Myer must give guarantees to country families that that simply will not happen. I urge all honourable members to support this urgent motion. By doing so they will put pressure on Coles Myer and demonstrate unanimous support for country centres. They will show unanimous support for decisions that maintain jobs for families who live in regional centres, and ensure that customer services and a range of goods are available to families who live in country centres and surrounding areas.

    Mr STONER (Oxley—Leader of the National Party) [3.45 p.m.]: On 11 April Coles Myer announced that it would close the Grace Bros Tamworth and Nowra stores "as part of the biggest stores overhaul in many years". The stores are at the end of their leases and are considered by Coles Myer to be too small to be sustainable in the future as Grace Bros department stores. Both stores will close on 22 June, which will be a sad day for regional and rural New South Wales. Coles Myer says that the decision was taken after careful consideration of the age, size and the amount of capital needed for substantial structural upgrades to the stores. The company argued that the stores would be unable to provide the growth potential that is needed to make them viable in the long term. Sadly, this is a reflection of the fact that regional economies in New South Wales are going nowhere while the economy in Sydney is going gangbusters. The Sydney-centric Labor Government has done little or nothing to stimulate regional economies in this State. In its press release Coles Myer stated that it is working with Tamworth and Nowra staff to place them in any available positions in other Coles Myer stores or businesses in the surrounding towns and areas.

    In Tamworth that decision justifiably spiked community outrage. The newly formed Save My Store Grace Bros Action Group has collated more than 8,000 responses to its survey. According to a group spokeswoman, Evelyn Parkinson, the community confirmed the importance of the store as a major economic and social anchor in the community. This grassroots uprising is symptomatic of the frustration in rural and regional New South Wales when people are confronted by remote decision making that leaves their communities poorer. But businesses need an environment in which they can prosper, and that is the role of government. This Government has been culpable in not providing such an environment in regional and rural New South Wales. On the contrary, this Government has imposed a rigid, regulatory regime over the main economic generator in country New South Wales—primary production. More than 50 pieces of legislation and regulations impact on farming in this State.

    Mr Campbell: What has that got to do with Coles Myer?

    Mr STONER: The Minister for Regional Development, Minister for the Illawarra, and Minister for Small Business should go to Tamworth and examine the economy. It is all about farming—that is where the money that is spent in the town comes from. People spend their money in Grace Bros stores and in other stores in Tamworth. Primary production is where the money comes from—it is the economic generator. The Minister for Regional Development should get out there, get some dust on his boots and have a look. The Native Vegetation and Conservation Act cost the Moree Plains shire more than $20 million. That figure was confirmed by a study conducted by Professor Jack Sinden, with whom the honourable member for Northern Tablelands would be familiar. The Government's complex water reforms, its complex legislation, and its moribund bureaucrat-dominated committees are other examples of the impact of its policy upon the wealth of country areas. The Government has not made any proactive policy initiatives to ameliorate the deleterious impacts of its disastrous natural resource regime.

    Mr Martin: Who wrote this?

    Mr STONER: I wrote it.

    Mr SPEAKER: Order! The honourable member for Bathurst will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate at the appropriate time.

    Mr STONER: What about payroll tax breaks for country employers? What about other incentives to attract businesses to country towns and to retain existing employers? No, the Government's only response, via the Minister for Regional Development today, has been to lambast Coles Myer.

    Mr Brown: Point of order: The honourable member seems to be reading from a prepared speech. When the honourable member for Bathurst asked, "Who wrote it?" the Leader of the National Party admitted that he wrote it. The standing orders state that members are allowed to use notes, not prepared speeches.

    Mr SPEAKER: Order! It is obvious that the Leader of the National Party is quoting from a number of sources. There is no point of order.

    Mr STONER: When one scratches the surface it is patently clear that this Sydney-centric Government has not done nearly enough for the economic health of regional and rural New South Wales. The action group argued that despite the unconfirmed introduction of a large Target store into the present building housing Grace Bros in Tamworth, there is still a demand for a Grace Bros store in the region. Residents and customers are rightly angry about this store closure. The action group's spokeswoman, Evelyn Parkinson, stated:

    We are now convinced the Coles Myer have grossly under-estimated the role of regional Australia in achieving Coles Myer's objective of making Grace Bros Australia's leading department store.

    If Coles Myer continues to strip department stores out of regional Australia, their board will have to modify its objective to be "the leading department store on the coastal strip".

    I call on Myer Grace Bros to reconsider its decision in relation to Tamworth and Nowra, given the importance of these businesses to the areas. I also call on the Government and the Minister for Regional Development to do more to stimulate local economies and provide an environment in which businesses, such as Grace Bros, can prosper in country towns.

    Mr SPEAKER: Order! Government members will restrain their enthusiasm until they are given the call.

    Mr STONER: Today the Minister for Natural Resources said that he would be working towards pulling back some of the anti-farmer legislation imposed by his Labor predecessors over the past eight years. At last there seems to be some acknowledgement by the Government of its mistakes, but it comes too late for many local economies that have seen businesses fold and leave town. This whole sorry episode highlights that after eight years of Labor there has been a continuing drift of population from country towns to major cities. As a result, many country towns have suffered a significant loss of services. The regional development policies and programs implemented by Labor have done little to address the concerns of the communities most in need of assistance. Regional development has been a low priority, often the responsibility of a junior Minister or combined with other portfolios and frequently restructured to suit short-term political objectives. Conversely, regional development is a high priority for the New South Wales National Party. We are committed to opening up long-term investment opportunities to increase employment and stimulate economic activity throughout regional New South Wales.

    [Interruption]

    Well, the Government will probably pinch it. We hope it does. All the Minister's good ideas come from us.

    Mr SPEAKER: Order! Government members will cease interjecting, and the Leader of the National Party should not allow himself to be goaded by those interjections.

    Mr STONER: At the recent election the National Party proposed separating the office of regional development from the office of state development to create a stand-alone agency focused on regional areas and issues, enabling it to provide a clear vision, long-term planning and a greater inclusion of local people. Another of our initiatives that would have underpinned rural and regional development was a $20 million annual rebate for country payroll tax to stimulate new investment and decentralisation in country New South Wales. A high payroll tax rate has crippled many businesses across country and coastal New South Wales. The New South Wales Coalition will continue to highlight Labor's glaring failures of the past eight years when it comes to regional and rural development and will make constructive suggestions on the way forward.

    Mr BROWN (Kiama) [3.55 p.m.]: I support the motion moved by the Minister for Regional Development, Minister for the Illawarra, and Minister for Small Business and add my voice to the condemnation of Coles Myer's actions to close the Tamworth and Nowra Grace Bros stores. We have just heard a lot of information from the Leader of the National Party. However, a lot of it was seriously flawed. He seems to forget the Carr Government's significant investment in regional New South Wales, such as moving the Department of Local Government from Sydney to Nowra and moving other departments to rural areas. He seems to have forgotten the Government's significant capital investment in the State, which generates many jobs.

    If the Leader of the National Party really wants to have some influence within the National Party he should talk to his Federal colleagues who, along with the Liberal Party, abolished the Federal Department of Regional Development. The Leader of the National Party spoke about payroll tax. If the National Party was strongly in favour of reducing payroll tax why did it let the Leader of the Opposition say, "No, we won't be touching payroll tax at all"? It is obvious that the National Party has absolutely no influence in the Coalition; it is certainly not there to be supporting jobs in regional New South Wales.

    The closure of the Nowra Grace Bros store will affect people who live on the coast and have an impact on thousands of tourists who visit the area. I urge the company to guarantee to families in regional New South Wales that no more country stores will be closed. Nothing is more destabilising for country communities than speculation. Media speculation, including that in the Age, before the 11 April announcement, certainly set the scene for the loss of the Tamworth and Nowra stores. The company said that it will attempt to offer alternative employment to workers from those stores, but we are still talking about the loss of 150 jobs in New South Wales. That is 150 country families whose security has been taken away because this company, which reported a tidy profit last year, believes it can do better by closing smaller stores.

    On the South Coast the company's decision directly affects the security of 50 families. Local mums, dads and kids have lost the security of income tied to a pay packet from Nowra's Grace Bros. Honourable members would be interested to know that Coles Myer unveiled an 8 per cent increase in its profits, to $212.5 million, for the six months to December last year. That is good news for Sydney shareholders, but country people are also shareholders and deserve recognition for the half century of loyal support in Tamworth and more than two decades of support in Nowra.

    Corporate savings should never be at the expense of regional communities who have supported stores such as Grace Bros, in this case for a total of 70 years. I urge the company to have a heart, to take care of its loyal South Coast work force and shoppers. I ask the company to make sure its Nowra employees have some hope for the future. The company should get on with its promise of placing staff in other Coles Myer stores or related businesses. The workers have been loyal to the company. Now is the time to restore the community's faith in Coles Myer. The company should make sure that workers are given all their entitlements and it should get on with the job of offering them alternative positions in its company.

    Decisions such as this affect not only Nowra but also the whole region. From 22 June people from the Nowra community and surrounding towns and villages will have to travel to Wollongong for their nearest Grace Bros store. People from Gerringong, Gerroa, Berry and Shoalhaven Heads who want to shop at a Grace Bros store will have to travel for a significantly longer time than they now travel. It will be impossible for them to visit a local major department store. It will be a two-hour round trip just to shop at Grace Bros, battling traffic to get there, completing their shopping, and battling traffic to go home. What about local people who do not own a car? What about the elderly? For the people who live in Nowra, getting to a Grace Bros store has just become a whole lot harder. Once it was simple to make a trip to the local Grace Bros store on the South Coast—it was a great shopping day for locals. Grace Bros was the place where people nipped in and grabbed the item they had forgotten to bring on holidays. Nowra is a major port of call for many holidaymakers.

    After 22 June people will no longer be able to do that; they will have to go to Wollongong and Sydney. Generations growing up on the South Coast have supported Grace Bros. I am sure that they share with me my great disappointment and disillusionment about the company's decision to renovate in the big smoke. City slickers will get slicker stores, but people in the New England region and the South Coast area have been given the boot. It is not good enough. The New South Wales Government continues to encourage and support regional communities. We are committed to regional businesses and investment and we are working with local communities to create jobs in regional areas. I urge Coles Myer to work with us to protect people from further closures in the State's significant regions. Where is the honourable member for South Coast when we are debating this important motion today?

    Mr PICCOLI (Murrumbidgee) [4.00 p.m.]: It is with some disappointment that I speak today in debate on this motion. I am sure that every member of Parliament, particularly country members, view this matter with some regret. The closure of any business, large or small, in a major centre such as Tamworth will impact significantly on the community. The closure of Grace Bros in Tamworth, which will have a flow-on effect, will result in the loss of 100 or more jobs. So approximately 100 families and a couple of hundred kids at the local school will be affected, which will undermine confidence in the broader community. If another tenant does not take over the building in June when the Grace Bros store is proposed to be closed, people in Tamworth will drive past a large vacant building—one of the things that tends to undermines consumer confidence. When people's confidence is dashed it impacts on their decision to stay in the community. The Grace Bros store is probably being closed because of a number of events. I am sure that Grace Bros executives did not say, "We are making millions of dollars in the Tamworth and Nowra stores so those stores should be closed." Their decision to close the stores was made for different reasons.

    It is hypocritical of the Government to take credit for every job that is created in New South Wales and to blame everyone else and distance itself when jobs are lost, as they will be lost on this occasion. I will not blame this loss of jobs entirely on the New South Wales Government because other factors are involved, but the Government must take some blame for what is happening in country New South Wales. Water reforms in the Namoi Valley area are having an impact on farm businesses in that region. If the pay packets of farmers are affected they will not be able to spend the sort of money that they were spending before. I am sure that that is one of the reasons why this store is being closed. I would like the Grace Bros stores in Tamworth and Nowra to remain open. Their closure is not the fault of Grace Bros; it is partly the fault of the New South Wales Government because of some policies that it has put in place. I refer to its structural adjustment policies in the Namoi Valley and in other parts of New South Wales.

    These store closures are the result of this Government's water reform, native vegetation and threatened species policies, as well as other things threatening the viability of farms and farm communities. These closures are directly related to this Government's structural adjustment policies, and it is having an impact on communities in the Namoi Valley and in Tamworth. Consumer confidence and farm businesses are being adversely affected. Businesses such as Grace Bros are closing their stores for that reason. As the Leader of the National Party said, it is partly because of payroll tax and partly because of other decisions that have been taken by the State Government. The Minister for Regional Development must take some responsibility for the job losses that are occurring in country New South Wales. He should not announce with great fanfare during question time that jobs are being created in the private sector when other jobs in the private sector are being lost. The Minister, who blames everyone but himself, should take some responsibility for the loss of these jobs and do something about it.

    Mr MARTIN (Bathurst) [4.05 p.m.] I am pleased to support the motion moved by the Minister for Regional Development. Coles Myer must assure families in regional areas that no more country stores will close—an issue of serious concern that is facing communities in the Central West. Our local retail stores, which are vital in these areas, are local services that we need and expect. Coles Myer should realise that it is a two-way street. Its stores are being loyally supported by country communities. According to a media release that was issued on 11 April, the company made the decision to close the Tamworth and Nowra stores on 22 June because these stores were "too small to be sustainable in the future". Coles Myer should compete with Woolworth's and expand its business rather than close its stores.

    [Interruption]

    The new member for Lane Cove, who continually lauds the Prime Minister, needs a few lessons. Over the next few weeks we will educate him, in particular in relation to payroll tax. The scrapping of these two regional stores comes at the expense of the refurbishment of others and the upgrading of key metropolitan centres in Burwood, Erina on the Central Coast, and in other States. I call on Coles Myer to put an end to any speculation that the Bathurst and Orange stores are next in line. I want an assurance that the Central West community is not about to lose its Grace Bros stores. I want a guarantee that no more stores will close in country New South Wales.

    I urge Coles Myer to take on the role of a good corporate citizen in country and city areas. Let us be even-handed about this issue. Clearly, its recent healthy profit figures show that it is not in dire straits. From time to time I, like everyone else, enjoy a bit of retail therapy in the William Street store in Bathurst—I ensure that my wife is not too dangerous with the credit card. Coles Myer is one of our premier shopping resources, and that will not change. People have supported the Grace Bros store for generations. The last thing that they want is to lose the stores in Bathurst and in Orange.

    We do not need this endless speculation. Grace Bros employees deserve better than that. Without these two stores in the Central West people wishing to shop face hours of travel to other centres. If centres of that size in Bathurst and Orange are closed other businesses will suffer. The company acted without consulting the communities in Tamworth and Nowra. It can only be assumed that, in the future, it will do the same thing. To date its track record on talking to communities and local organisations is not good. I referred earlier to an 11 April media release in which the company said that it is clearly reviewing its store portfolio. Even though it said that it would keep its staff, customers and financial markets fully briefed on its plans for any future changes, I still have grave concerns for other country stores. I am sure that those concerns are held by all honourable members. The final words on the company's media release refer to the fact that it will inform people of its "plans for any further changes". I view that statement with trepidation because of the company's track record to date. It is time that the company came clean about its future retail intentions in regional New South Wales.

    The drought has left much of country New South Wales in a severely depressed state and that, in turn, has affected retail economies. However, Coles Myer, the owners of the Grace Bros stores, should be in a better position than anyone to weather that storm. The last thing we need in the Bathurst and Orange areas is the loss of dozens of retail jobs, which is what we are looking at. Coles Myer, which still has high profits, must be operating these stores fairly well. So it is pretty hollow rhetoric for it to be talking about downsizing or closing these stores because they are not big enough.

    The decision has already been taken in relation to the Grace Bros stores at Nowra and Tamworth. Perhaps it is, as Coles Myer claims, irreversible. However, we must now work hard to protect the stores that remain, particularly those in Bathurst and Orange in the Central West. I call on Coles Myer to guarantee families of the Central West that it has no plans to close the stores. We want that guarantee today, not sometime in the future. Endless speculation about their future is doing no-one any good. Coles Myer should be upfront with the communities of Bathurst and Orange that have supported it for generations. It should be warned that some of its other retail outlets will feel the impact if people believe Coles Myer has been disloyal to the retail community in the Central West and elsewhere. I commend the motion to the House.

    Mr DRAPER (Tamworth) [4.10 p.m.]: Coles Myer took the decision to close the Grace Bros store in Tamworth without any consultation with our community. This is much more than just a store closure: It is a matter of social equity and justice for regional communities. The Tamworth Grace Bros store serves a customer base that is derived from an area larger than Tasmania and it is the only upmarket department store in our region. Some 100 local families depend upon Grace Bros for their livelihoods and, while Coles Myer has indicated that it intends to replace it with a Target store, the employees and the community have united in an effort to save the existing store. Having a store the calibre of Grace Bros in Tamworth is beneficial not only because it attracts shoppers but because it helps to draw professional people, such as doctors and lawyers, and financial services to our city and to retain them. One lady from Wagga Wagga pointed out at the recent save Grace Bros rally that a condition of her moving to her farm after her marriage was that she would never live more than 100 miles from a Grace Bros store. As she said, her husband is now a very worried man.

    The Save My Store Grace Bros Tamworth action group has been formed to try to prevent this drastic action on the part of Coles Myer. It has collected 6,000 signatures from customers who want the store to remain open. The group is extremely passionate and active and its spokesperson, Evelyn Parkinson, and her committee have devoted almost every waking moment since the announcement to trying to reverse the closure decision. Customers who have already signed the petition come from many towns apart from Tamworth—Gunnedah, Narrabri, Wee Waa, Moree, Lightning Ridge, Inverell, Bingara, Barraba, Boggabri, Armidale, Nundle, Walcha, Quirindi and Murrurundi. It is interesting to note the pulling power of Grace Bros in a country area. That shows that people will travel an awful long way when they have no alternative and there is no other department store just down the road of the quality of Grace Bros. I talked to some people from Sydney yesterday who can travel to three department stores within 15 minutes. People in my area drive for five hours to visit Grace Bros, and they are prepared to make the trip.

    Coles Myer's excuse for closing the store is that it cannot justify the cost of refurbishment. I seriously doubt that. Refurbishing the building as a Target store is surely not so different from refurbishing it and retaining Grace Bros. I urge the communities of Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo to view this closure with a great deal of concern. There are strong indications that when the leases expire on the stores in those centres they will also be earmarked for closure. Coles Myer appears to be focusing very much on the coastal strip and on major metropolitan areas to the detriment of rural and regional centres. I call upon Coles Myer to consider what the acronym GRACE means to people outside the major cities. To us it means: give regional Australia consideration and equity. Our Tamworth ambassador for 2003, Tania Kernaghan, came to the rally to save Grace Bros and said:

    The closure of Grace Bros is like being kicked when you're already down … it's a case of too many city people making decisions for country people … the Coles Myer executive staff need to take a leaf out of Telstra Country Wide's book and start putting money back into regional Australia instead of doing the reverse.

    I fully support those comments. The profitability of the store has been questioned. However, I question the trading practices of the Tamworth store. Does it have to open on all public holidays and every Sunday? In my opinion, if Coles Myer were to reduce its trading hours the people of Tamworth and the surrounding districts would adjust their shopping habits accordingly. The people of our city and the surrounding area have indicated strongly that they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of local Grace Bros stores. We are asking simply for an opportunity to prove to the Coles Myer management team that our community will provide the necessary support and financial backing. We simply want our store to remain open. I urge Coles Myer to change its decision and to retain Grace Bros in our town.

    Mr TORBAY (Northern Tablelands) [4.15 p.m.]: I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss the proposed closure of the Grace Bros stores in Tamworth and Nowra. There is also speculation about the fate of other stores in the region, and this is a major concern. I congratulate the Minister for Regional Development, Minister for the Illawarra, and Minister for Small Business on moving this motion. It is important that members who represent country electorates have a chance to discuss how private sector policy affects country people. Coles Myer is pursuing an anti-country policy. I commend the honourable member for Tamworth for showing leadership on this issue to the local community and the region: this closure will affect the entire New England region. I congratulate also the community and the Save My Store Grace Bros Tamworth action group on condemning Coles Myer enthusiastically.

    The contribution by the Leader of the National Party suggested to me that he has not researched this issue thoroughly and has taken most of his advice from local press clippings. Some of his information was accurate but a great deal of it was not. The Leader of the National Party appeared almost to be protecting the big end of town by seeking to put the blame for the closure squarely on government policy. If he wants to pursue that argument, to be fair, he must share the blame with the Federal Government, which has been in office for some years. The Leader of the National Party missed the key point: the Tamworth Grace Bros store was profitable. I suspect, even though I have not seen the figures, that the other store was also profitable and that closures of profitable stores will stay on the Coles Myer agenda. Let us be clear: This is an anti-country policy.

    Coles Myer is saying that it would rather shut country stores because they are too difficult to manage. It does not matter whether they are making money. The honourable member for Murrumbidgee made an excellent point when he said that this decision goes to the issue of confidence in regional areas. Hear! Hear! When a company such as Coles Myer announces its decision to close a profitable store in a major country centre we should all look out. Which regional centre will be next? It cannot justify that decision on the basis of profitability.

    [Debate interrupted.]