It’s taken a lot to push Australia’s Ashes humiliation and the floods in Queensland off the front pages Down Under. Yet Australia’s retailers have managed it, after a campaign aimed at creating a level playing field between physical and online retailers spectacularly backfired.

It’s taken a lot to push Australia’s Ashes humiliation and the floods in Queensland off the front pages Down Under. Yet Australia’s retailers have managed it, after a campaign aimed at creating a level playing field between physical and online retailers spectacularly backfired.

The campaign demands a loophole meaning purchases under AUS$1,000 made offshore over the internet are exempt from Australia’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) - its equivalent of VAT - be closed. Yet, as well as appearing to have little chance of being successful in the short term, it has led to an avalanche of criticism of the non-food retailers that launched the campaign.

The campaign was led by department store groups Myer and David Jones and electricals giant Harvey Norman, and earned the support of retailers including Target, Borders and French Connection. The group of retailers took out ads in all the main Australian newspapers, which said that if the GST playing field wasn’t levelled, the jobs of thousands of Australians working in retail would be under threat. The ads stated online businesses “don’t pay our taxes, employ our people, train our young people or contribute to our economy”.

But if the retailers thought the ads would appeal to Australians’ strong sense of patriotism, they were mistaken. Instead they came under a barrage of criticism for what was perceived as an attempt by greedy and out of touch billionaires to try to force Aussie shoppers to pay higher prices. The attacks have mushroomed beyond simply the GST issue, and the country’s retailers have been accused of overcharging their customers for years.

The campaign descended into chaos days after launching when its highest-profile backer, Harvey Norman founder Gerry Norman, distanced himself from it. Norman, along with Myer boss Bernie Brookes and fashion tycoon Solomon Lew, had been one of the main campaign faces.

Explaining his decision to step back from the campaign, Harvey told the Sydney Morning Herald: “Because of my profile I get all these threats and people hone in on me. It becomes me and Solomon Lew - billionaires, greedy, ugly, old, out-of-date c***s, and the people writing this seem to think we’ve been ripping them off for years.”

The government has little interest in changing the rules. Imposing GST on overseas online sales would be unpopular with voters and cost as much to collect as it would raise in taxes. That may change though, because thanks to the campaign the retailers have scored the spectacular own goal of raising awareness of the lower prices available to Australian shoppers on the web to levels their online rivals could only dream of.