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Essays:

2007 QLD Govt
research: review

Why is Brisbane
afraid of the dark?


Dual time zone or 'double standard' time

When a faded curtain is not a joke

Hold back the night

Light without progress

Epilogue

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Why is Brisbane afraid of the dark?

 

Typical in-flight announcement during the daylight saving months – Brisbane to Sydney:

Ladies and gentlemen. Passengers are advised that the time in Sydney is now …

Typical in-flight announcement during the daylight saving months – Sydney to Brisbane:

Ladies and gentlemen. Passengers are advised that Queensland is not on daylight saving time. Please turn your watches backwards one hour.

In the language of daylight politics, Queensland is not a state with its own time. Instead, we are a 'non-daylight saving' state, or, as Brisbane-Gold Coast journalists love to put it, a state that has 'failed' to implement daylight saving. In a thousand and one subtle and not-so-subtle ways every year, Queenslanders are made to feel that we are merely a daylight saving state ‘in waiting’. As a Brisbane academic wrote recently in an opinion piece for the Australian:

'Queensland, or at least the southeast, boasts so much in common with southern capitals that we may now ... refer to the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra rectangle in terms of shared political and cultural values. In other words, … an adolescent southeast Queensland wants to join the grown-ups, with daylight saving yet another rite of passage.'1

If it weren’t for the fact that so many south-east Queenslanders have been drip-fed to perceive daylight saving, and themselves, in this way, such a comment would be seen for what it is – a bad case of cultural cringe.

One could also argue that ‘growing up’ is about not being afraid of the dark, so to speak. It's about leaving home, broadening your horizons and establishing your own set of values. In daylight-saving terms at least, Queensland needs to start looking less at the rest of the eastern seaboard and more at the rest of the world. So concentrated is our southward gaze, and so imbued are we with the concept that daylight saving is progressive majority wisdom, we fail to see that worldwide it is actually a minority – and an unruly, backward, divisive one at that.

For about 50 years after World War II, daylight saving had a dream run. This is understandable, as it was a product of the times in which it was conceived – the era of the inflexible 9–5 work day. Nation after nation embraced its whacky artifice, its unsubstantiated energy savings, its impossible lifestyle claims. The simple concept of changing the clock twice a year to bring more light, value and opportunity to the day proved hypnotic to stressed-out urban Westerners.

Far more crucial to its attraction, however, was the viral marketing of evening daylight as a stimulus to consumption. The essentially urban myth that daylight saving would extend the daylight hours of the working day and oblige people to spend more money after work thrived unimpeded throughout the international business community.

If anyone complained, or challenged the belief system that daylight saving would improve lifestyles, save energy, reduce the road toll, deter crime and increase productivity and profit, a well-timed repertoire of ‘confused cow’, ‘faded curtain’ and ‘God’s time’ ridicule was (and still is) applied to shame the dissenters.

Surgically removed from all the evangelism was the limited scope of daylight saving’s virtues, which are specific to the summer daylight patterns of temperate-zone latitudes – for example, of the seventy nations that use daylight saving worldwide, forty-eight alone are in Europe.

As the zeal of mainly commercial lobbies and anxieties about energy saving have counterproductively pushed the practice further inwards, into the cold, dark months of autumn/winter, and outwards, towards the tropical and sub-arctic zones (below 35 and above 55 degrees North and South), cracks have begun to appear in the international clock face.

It is still heresy to admit it, but daylight saving is having trouble moving with the times. As the 21st century gets underway, the twice-yearly clock-change ritual is proving too rigid, too centralised, too urban-centric and too temperate-zone friendly to be of universal value over the long term.

Largely because the leaders of the world ecomony (at least until recent times) are temperate-zone nations, the vast majority of populations throughout the world have been faced with daylight saving dilemmas similar to Queensland’s – to a greater or lesser degree. Out of 193 countries worldwide, about 120 – including Japan, India, Iceland and Singapore – do not use daylight saving, but most have come under pressure to adopt it. Many have capitulated, only to decide it's not for them. Former daylight saving nations, including China, South Korea, Fiji, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, have actually reverted to all-year standard time.

Others have tried but failed. In 2000, sixteen out of Mexico’s thirty-one states, including Mexico City, took their Federal government all the way to the High Court to drop the practice on constitutional grounds – and lost. The French government also had a go in 1997 but backed down when threatened with legal action by the European Union.

Still others dither. The Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – dropped daylight saving in 2000 in the face of opinion polls showing majority opposition, only to reinstate it again by 2003 as part of preparations to join the EU.

For the best part of a century, the United States has been almost continually bogged down in daylight controversy. As Californian and north-eastern commercial interests lobby for ever more extensions (and mostly win), literally dozens of abolition bills have been introduced by State legislators since the mid-90s, particularly in the hot southern states. These rarely pass beyond the committee stage but still they keep coming. In the far north, two recent anti-daylight saving bills have been thrown out of the Alaskan State Congress, despite an independent opinion poll early in 2005 revealing a 58 per cent opposition.

The cumbersome twice-yearly clock-change has created an international time-zone mess, comparable to the confusions that originally gave rise to the introduction of Standard Time in the 1890s. Most daylight saving nations still can’t agree on a common starting or ending date – fair enough, given the vast international variations in climate, latitude, longitude and seasonal daylight patterns. And then you have the natural disparity of the northern and southern hemispheres – not only do their daylight saving periods occur at opposite ends of the year, at other times they actually overlap. As a result, more than 20 separate daylight saving systems now operate worldwide.

If the many blog sites on daylight saving are an indication, there are increasing signs, even in the temperate-zone countries, that people are sick and tired of screwing up both their household and body clocks twice a year. In a current US government online poll, 53 per cent of respondents to date (December 2005) are against daylight saving, while only 32 per cent favour it.

As dissatisfaction and confusion grows, the daylight saving world is painting itself into a corner. It really has only two options – either revert to all-year standard time or gradually move to all-year daylight saving. In commercial terms the former is unthinkable; in social terms the latter is unworkable, especially in the temperate zones (where the whole thing got started in the first place). Even the most gung-ho pro-daylight supporters living on temperate latitudes have to admit that there are no energy-saving or lifestyle benefits in having schools, workplaces and shops open at least an hour before the sun comes up in winter, only to gain a totally useless hour's winter daylight from about 4 to 5 pm.

Closer to home, in the southern Australian states, yet another bitter daylight-extension controversy – led mainly by inner-metropolitan MPs and business groups in Sydney and Melbourne – is taking hold again in the southern capitals. If history is any guide the ‘pro’ camp will probably win – because they have the political clout, not because they are right.2 The mythical benefits will be much hyped, but in reality amount to nothing, except to extend an age-old feeling of urban self-righteousness in the face of ‘rural parochialism’. The division, resentment, confusion and alienation it would generate, however, both interstate and intrastate, is incalculable.

To the west, Perth metropolitan interests are pushing for either another daylight saving referendum (the fourth in 30 years!) or, more likely, a Cabinet decision that by-passes the plebiscite process. Like south-east Queensland, their vision is also to ‘grow up’, via an illusion of political and commercial closeness to Sydney and Melbourne. The prospect that daylight saving would throw Perth out of sync with south-east Asia for almost half the year, as well as antagonise and disenfranchise its own rural/regional sectors (at least 50 per cent of the population), is of little to no interest.3

Seen from a national and international perspective, daylight saving’s ongoing time-zone confusions, dissatisfactions and anxieties have lessons for Queensland … that is, if the southeast corner weren’t so afraid of being left alone in the dark. Year after year, the ‘out of sync’ fears pushed by the Brisbane-Gold Coast clock-change lobby forget to remind us that, in international terms, Queensland is not all that ‘different’ at all. Our daylight saving dilemma is merely a reflection of a multitude of national and worldwide dilemmas that are as old as timekeeping itself.

This unpalatable truth finally seems to be gaining begrudging recognition in the southern states. As a recent editorial in the Australian put it:

'…the sheer fact of our vast and diverse continent will hinder uniformity …in Hobart, the longest day exceeds the shortest by well over six hours; in Cairns, it is barely two. While the differences in, for example, Year 12 maths curricula across the nation are simply a nonsense, differences over daylight saving reflect who we are and where we live.'4

While the rest of the nation and the world refuse to accept that the never-ending quest for more daylight is incompatible with the equally never-ending quest for time-zone uniformity, our daylight saving dilemmas will only get worse. Unfortunately, no amount of daylight can make us feel comfortable about who we are. And no amount of clock changing can put us in sync with the sheer diversity of existence.

Ladies and gentlemen. Passengers are advised that the time in Queensland is Queensland time. Please adjust your watches…

December 2005, updated 2007


Notes

1. Paul Williams, ‘End this daylight snobbery’, The Australian, 3 November, 2005

2. [Update] In 2007, the NSW government introduced a 4-week daylight saving extension, which came into effect in March 2008. The other daylight saving states were obliged to follow suit.

3. [Update] A 3-year DST trial was introduced by the WA Government in November 2006. The trial began on 6 December, with a refendum to be held in 2009.

4. ‘Here comes the sun’, The Australian, 1 November, 2005