Time used to be a local matter. In the 17th century Zurich could be a few minutes behind Milan because nothing happened in Zurich that needed to be synchronised in Milan. The advent of the railway and the telegraph changed that. Suddenly it made sense for Zurich and Milan to be on the same time. (photo by Glutnix)
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. The world adopted the British convention in the International Meridian Conference of 1884. Its governance is still extant.
Australia 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, daylight saving has seen Australia transform itself into a blancmange of time zones and all-round national stupidity. As I write it is 8:38pm 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.
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 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, Australia’s two biggest states.
Eastern Australia would now be on Australian Eastern Summer Time (AEST). The time would be the same in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania,the ACT, SA and NT. A situation everyone would find easy to manage.
The southern states and territories should have no problem dealing with my proposal as their times don’t change – they may even benefit if they have to deal with the other three states and territories.
My proposal will be harder to sell in 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 many in urban areas may appreciate the extra half hour daylight saving all year round. More might agree 30 minutes is a small price to pay for synchronisation with the East Coast. The NT would 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 the issue and Anna Bligh will not hold a referendum because it is so divisive. Perhaps if the issue can be re-shaped as one of national interest, it may be less divisive. If South Australia 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. Australian should be making the decision not the states because the problem of time zones affects the country as a whole. It is an economic problem of communicating across the nation in real time. And it will only get worse.
The South-East of Queensland is a particularly 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 inspire further consolidation.
Synchonising Eastern Australia would be a good start.