Sunday, October 04, 2009

Daylight saving: A modest proposal

Time was that the time only mattered locally. Once upon a time, it didn’t matter that Zurich was a few minutes behind Milan because nothing happened in Zurich that needed to be synchronised exactly in Milan. But the advent of the railway and the telegraph changed all that. Suddenly it made sense for Zurich and Milan to be on the same time. (photo by Glutnix)

As the dominant power of the era, Britain was first to realise the benefit of a single national time. The country adopted Greenwich Mean Time in 1847 and it was set in concrete once the railways adopted it a year later. Their convention was adopted by the world in the International Meridian Conference of 1884. Its governance is still remarkably extant. Australia did not exist as a political entity at the time was represented by Britain to ensure the sun never went down on its empire.

But because Australia did exist as a reality, it is mentioned in the 1884 conference notes. It noted the 150th, 135th, and 120th meridians of east longitude which were “admirably located for governing” represented the eastern, central, and western divisions of that continent. With admirable simplicity, it recommended Eastern Australia to be 10 hours ahead of the motherland. (The time in the West is not specified).

But that simplicity is not what exists today. Overnight, a partial delivery of daylight saving has seen Australia transform itself into a blancmange of time zones and all-round national stupidity. As I write this now it is 8:38pm here in Queensland, it is 9:38pm in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT. It is 8:08pm in Darwin, It is 9:08pm in Adelaide. It is 6:38pm in Perth. It is a mess everywhere.

This is an indictment of how we manage time as a nation. How much of the growing national conversation is wiped out because of these inconsistencies? How much business?

This is not a Daylight Savings argument, this is about consistency across the region. Even in winter, Adelaide and Darwin are still a somewhat pointless half hour out of synch.

So here is my modest proposal, a modification of the 1884 argument: All states and territories (except WA) should go on the one time zone, the one now used by Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Hobart.

This would mean all of Eastern Australia would have the same time. Given that time zones are based around populations as much as geography, it makes sense that the standard time should be that of NSW and Victoria, still Australia’s two biggest states.

If this were the case, Eastern Australia would now be on Australian Eastern Summer Time (AEST). As I write this the time would now be 10:10pm here in Queensland 10:10pm in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT, 10:10pm in Darwin and 10:10pm in Adelaide. A situation everyone would find it easy to remember and manage.

The southern states and territories should have no problem dealing with my proposal as their times don’t change.

The proposal would be far harder for SA which would jump another half hour and NT which would jump by 90 minutes in summer. It is certainly a difficult proposal for them given their position in the centre of the country. But it might not be impossible to sell. Many in urban areas may appreciate the extra half hour daylight saving all year round. More might agree that 30 minutes is a small price to pay for synchronisation with the East Coast. The NT might need further convincing but should not stop the proposal by themselves.

Queensland is more problematic. It would be unaffected in winter but would pick up an hour of daylight saving in summer. The state is currently split down the middle on this issue and Anna Bligh will not hold a referendum on the issue because she knows she cannot control the outcome. If the issue could be re-shaped as one of national interest, it may be less divisive. If South Australia which is further west could be convinced to say yes then there is no reason for Queensland to reject it.

Time should be a federal matter and Queensland should not be allowed to make a decision of this importance on its own. Australia should be making the decision not the states because the problem of time zones affects the country as a whole, not just the states. It is an economic problem of communicating across the nation in real time. And it will only get worse.

I will admit here and now to this being a personal preference based on my own location.

The South-East of Queensland is a peculiarly anomalous zone of timekeeping. Brisbane is the most easterly city in Australia but lags an hour behind Sydney and Melbourne for six months. The fact that even Adelaide is half hour ahead of Brisbane for that period is completely absurd as a casual glance at a map will confirm.

Hopefully in a hundred years or so, this lack of standardisation will look as idiotic as the lack of common gauge rail system. China is bigger than Australia but has just one time zone. The curvature of the earth imposes limits but I expect the pressure of global 24 x 7 communication will only inspire further consolidation.

Synchonising Eastern Australia would be a good start.


Sylmobile said...

Perhaps in a compromise with SA and NT, they could come forward 14 minutes 50 seconds and the eastern states and WA back 15 minutes 10 seconds .... 8-p

Derek Barry said...

A splendid idea, except it would put Australia very much at odds with the rest of the world!

Unknown said...

It might be that we should just forget about daylight saving, some research says its bad for us: and

Derek Barry said...

Maybe we should, Steve.

But that doesn't change my argument for the need for consistency across the states.

Friendless said...

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Derek, I work for a multinational company with staff in Bangalore, Nevada and Illinois; I play games on Facebook with people in huge numbers of countries. Honestly, I can cope if other states have different times.

Derek Barry said...

Friendless, I've also worked with overseas people and know its possible to cope.

But the situation that currently exists in Australia is almost wilfully stupid and easily corrected.

Not all consistency is foolish.

Friendless said...

When we had the DST trial in Queensland, I was living in Townsville, and the first day of DST my alarm went off at 7am in the dark. I thought I'd set the clock wrong, but I hadn't. Adelaide is far to the west of Townsville, so could be even worse. DST works great in the east, where natural time is earlier, and in the south where summer days are longer. Outside of those areas it just seems silly because the time on the clock doesn't match the time on the sun. I can understand why some people are for it and some against, and don't have a good counterproposal.

Derek Barry said...

But after a day or so you get used to it.

Back to my point: This is not about daylight saving, it is about having the east of Australia on the one time.

If the east of Aus then so desired to dump daylight saving, they then could do so as a group.

MG said...

If I may intrude on your blog with another proposal. How about all states and territories except W.A move to Central Daylight saving time without changing clocks for summer or winter? This would mean that QLD would be permanently half an hour ahead of where it currently is and N.S.W/Vic/Tas permanently 30 minutes behind.

I have looked into this and for coastal QLD it would mean (approximately):
Earliest sunrise: 5.25am
Latest sunset: 7.30pm
Latest Sunrise: 7.20am
Earliest Sunset: 5.50pm

The times for coastal N.S.W
Earliest sunrise: 5.10am
Latest sunset: 7.40pm
Latest Sunrise: 7.30am
Earliest Sunset: 5.25pm

Derek Barry said...


your proposal has merit and means that the entire east coast be consistent with logical sunrise/sunset hrs.

The biggest downside I can see it that it puts east Aus out of alignment with the rest of the world (eg most places would be x hours +30 mins ahead/behind us).

MG said...

I don't think it would make much difference Derek. The only other country on the Australian EST time zone is PNG. Of the other major financial centres near our time zone Tokyo is -1 hrs EST, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore -2 so they would just be an extra half our behind us which wouldn't make a great difference from now, especially if you consider that Sydney goes even further ahead at the moment.